Our readings today are not from the RCL passages set for this week, but rather are passages that we heard and studied at the Uniting Women Conference I attended in Adelaide last week. The theme of the conference was Sharing Stories of Hope, and it was great to have some meaty scholarly input from two very accomplished biblical scholars- Liz Boase (OT lecturer) and Vicky Balabanksi (NT lecturer) from the theological college in Adelaide. What I will share with you today will be some reflections from these two passages that came largely from Liz and Vicky, with some of my own thoughts thrown in for good measure.
The passage from Luke is the story of Jesus’ return to his home town of Nazareth, and his declaration in the synagogue, that he is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah speaks. The take home message that I got from this passage at the conference was that God’s holiness is contagious, and can infect and change things that are unclean- not the other way round, as is so often stated/thought (that evil, or ‘uncleanness’ is contagious and can spoil things that are holy.) God’s holiness is stronger than that. This was a particularly exciting study, but I want to wait until a later time to fully unpack it for you (as we’ve been promised full texts from the biblical study presentations at a later date). Today I want to focus on the Old Testament reading.
After reading this passage from Exodus, it’s not hard to draw strong lines between the situation for the Israelites in Egypt, and our own society today.
The Israelites were effectively a refugee community in Egypt; their ancestors having fled a very serious famine in their homeland, to find a friendly face in Joseph, and lots of food, in Egypt. And so, over the years, they multiplied and grew in numbers, and eventually, a new king, who hadn’t known Joseph, and all he did for Egypt back in the days of the famine, and so the new king started to feel threatened by the presence of the -now rather sizeable- Israelite community. He was worried about them rising up and causing trouble- even though there is no indication in the text that they were in any way disgruntled, or likely to rise up and cause trouble.
Pharaoh was motivated by fear and suspicion, and is seeking to eliminate the perceived threat. Sound familiar? This is a pattern that is common throughout history, and continues today (just look at how recent Australian governments have treated the ‘perceived threats’ of refugees to our country).
For the Israelites, first, Pharaoh tries to control their numbers, by oppressing them- making them work ridiculously hard, presumably thinking that this will slow down their breeding, and the growth of their population, but the plan backfired, and ‘the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread’ (v12)...and really, are we surprised at this? Imagine what life was like for the Israelites under that regime- they worked long, hard hours, had no other pleasure in life, so what else did Pharaoh expect them to do to seek some respite from the oppression they faced? (Imagine the reaction of a church full of 400 women at this point ...
So Pharaoh tried a different tack to control the Israelites. Because of the difference in gender roles in those days, males were seen to be more significant than females, so Pharaoh sought to kill all of the boy babies born to Israelite women, and thus control the population, and quash any potential uprising in that way.
So the king becomes the bringer of death, demanding that the midwives go against everything they are trained for and stand for- in ordering them to kill any boy babies born to the Hebrew women. But the midwives Shiphrah and Puah were not having it.
Are these names familiar to anyone? I was familiar with this story before the conference, but had never really taken note of the names of these two women, who have become heroines of the faith for me. So remember their names- SHIPHRAH and PUAH; because whilst the king chose to be the bringer of death, despite the risk to themselves (and it would have been a significant risk), Shiphrah and Puah chose to disobey the king and choose life, because they feared God. The Hebrew word translated at ‘fear’ here has nothing to do with being afraid as we would understand it, but rather ‘fear’ equates to ‘respect’ or ‘reverence’ and a kind of relationship.
Not only did Shiphrah and Puah disobey the king by NOT killing the male babies; when they were challenged about this, they dared to lie to this great and powerful king (and to top it all off, they didn’t just LIE, but told the most ridiculous rouse about the Hebrew women being more robust than the Egyptian women- AND the king believed them!)- all because Shiphrah and Puah feared God.
The theme of the Uniting Women conference was Sharing Stories of Hope. The story of Shiphrah and Puah’s courage and determination to choose life over death is a story of hope. Hope is a choice. These midwives chose hope over death, and thus became the embodiment of God’s reign, and the coming of God’s kingdom.
Like Shiphrah and Puah, we also live in a culture of fear and injustice. We see asylum seekers oppressed by our government, and forced to languish in death camps for outrageously long periods of time, rather than having their claims for asylum processed in a reasonable timeframe; our government has just introduced a federal budget that is not good news for the most vulnerable members of society; we live in a culture where victims are often blamed for the violence perpetrated against them (especially if they are women who are raped or experience domestic violence).
At the conference I heard how women in the Pacific Islands are not allowed to study theology and serve God and the church as ordained ministers- only the men are allowed; I heard from Tanya Hosch, (an indigenous woman who is highly educated, and articulate: working at the highest level to have indigenous people recognised in our country’s Constitution, through her work with Recognise)- that it is a common occurrence for her to be refused passage in taxis because she is aboriginal. The list of her achievements in the business world and community is extensive, and yet taxi drivers refuse to take her in their cabs because she is obviously not white.
We do indeed live in a culture of fear and injustice- but we also have the option to choose hope over fear. Like Shiphrah and Puah, we can go against the prevailing conditions and choose life and hope over death and despair. We might not think we can do much, but what we can do, can have a ripple effect. Because of Shiphrah and Puah’s refusal to kill the boy babies, one important boy- Moses- survived, and grew up to be a great leader of God’s people. I’m sure Shiphrah and Puah would never have dreamed that their actions could have had such a significant outcome. Like them, there are no doubt many things we can do that we might not realise the significance of at the time- like showing kindness to a stranger; choosing to ACT, rather than REACT, when someone might be trying to wind us up.
On the first night at the conference, we were all asked to take out our mobile phones and take a ‘selfie’, and to put that photo as the background/wallpaper on our phones, so we could see it often. (I made my selfie into my Facebook profile picture for the week). We were told “Look at yourself- you are the image-bearer of Christ. Never forget that.” On the final morning of the conference, we had Stuart McMillan (Ass President); three female moderators (Deidre Palmer- SA, and also Pres-elect; Myung Hwa Park- NSW/ACT; Thresi Mauboy - Northern Synod) and one female Ass General Sec- Colleen Geyer. Each of them was asked to share stories of where they saw hope in the church. I was particularly moved by some of the things said by Colleen Geyer, and I share some of her words with you:
I want to challenge all of us to be truthful - with each other about what we're dealing with, about how we can encourage each other, be there for each other, about what we need and what God's Church needs, and what we think are the answers to these – even if they aren’t the comfortable answers, the easy answers. We've got some challenges, and there's going to be some changes. But let’s open up those doors and let God's light shine in on us. And I'd like to dare you - I'd like to dare you to be courageous bearers of hope. Let's hope the heck out of the Uniting Church! Let's let the hope of God through the example of the incarnated Christ overwhelm us and how we are the Uniting Church in Australia.... She finished with a blessing:
May we draw courage from the past
Learn from the realities of the present
And be fearless as we face the future
I am so looking forward to being a fearless bearer of hope with all of you.
May it be so. Amen.