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The Faith of Women 

Exodus 1:8-20 and Matthew 15:21-28

Pentecost 10, Common Lectionary Year A

©2014 Rev. Elisabeth R. Jones

Audio file

The two readings we heard this morning don’t actually belong together in the lectionary; the story of Miriam and the Midwives belongs next week, and we would have missed it because we’ll be in enjoying worship led by our Workshop of Wonders campers. But in my own biblical preparation for this month, I read the two stories one immediately after the other, and was quite powerfully struck by the cumulative impact on my own understanding of what faith is or can be, because of the actions of the women in the two stories. So I decided to share the pairing of the stories with you.

Now, perhaps some of you are really bothered, not by the women of these two stories, but by the  words and actions of Jesus, which are legitimately bothersome.  If so, can I commend to you the sermon I preached on this text back in 2011? You can still find it on the website, called “Dilemma and Promise,” but for today, I want to focus attention not on the men in the stories, but the women. We’ll begin with the Midwives and Miriam.

It’s telling that in a Bible that is noticeably patriarchal, the names of two midwives, Shifrah and Puah, and a young girl Miriam, are recorded. Names remembered, passed down from generation to generation. Right here we have a clue that these women matter a lot to the story of Israel’s faith.

Because we get to hear their story, the story of women remaking the world, simply by being women, the heavily masculine portrait of Israel’s faith is overlaid, opened up, to include new colours, and nuances. The story of human faith in God now expands beyond the spectacular and miraculous, water-parting, wall-crashing feats of giants like Moses and Joshua, to include the hidden, subversive, nurturing, resilient, tiny acts of women, people of no account. Let’s begin with this Exodus story; it is like a slap-stick pantomime! Pharaoh, in typical despot fashion, rules with the fists of fear and death. These pesky descendants of Joseph are seen as a threat to his economic, political, religious, and military superiority. So his response is a stridently weak “Off with their heads! Kill all the newborn boys!” And the coup de grace, a wrist-flicking dismissive, “You can let their girls live, they’re of no account.” Fool!

Exodus records “But the midwives “feared”  = knew and honoured their God…  and when boys were born, they let them live.” Now, a direct violation of an autocrat’s edict is not likely to win these midwives the “citizens of the year” awards. What they did, because of their faith,  was subversive, an utterly female form of boldness. They even lie in the cause of a greater good!

When Pharaoh grumbles that there are still Hebrew boys eating him out of house and home, Shiprah and Puah are the first ‘caricature’ Jewish mamas in written history: They shrug shoulders, “What can I say, Hebrew women are strong, and their babies just pop out before we can even get there! We can do nothing! We’re just women.”

Under the schlocky humour there’s a profound insight into the way they, as women, “know and honour”  and see God. Forgive the bald polarity while I make this point: While the men may see God as Almighty Lord, a leader of the heavenly armies, – guy stuff. To the women, God is the life-giver, the nurturer, the Creator, God takes chaos and refashions it, moulds and breathes and nurses it into beauty, goodness, possibility, future, hope. To the women, when God sees creatures threatened, God protects, gathers her creatures under her wing like a mother hen. So, these women “know and honour” God by doing likewise: The midwives would no more kill a mother’s child than God could abandon creation.

Perhaps the most gut-wrenching character these two stories are the mothers. Miriam’s mother, with a newborn boy at her breast, hiding him for as long as she could against the death threats of pharaoh. And how agonizingly was she faced with the cruellest choice: certain death for her child, or the faintest possibility of life. How many mothers have faced the same dilemma? She chooses life; casts her son onto the waters, in a carefully fashioned basket (the details of construction are reminiscent of those which describe building of Noah’s ark, cast on the waters to ride the storm to new life after the deluge).   And Miriam! A girl, of no account, no threat, no significance to Pharaoh’s world. She keeps her hidden vigil over her baby brother. Determined, quick-witted raised on her mother’s faith, flagrant in her mix of perceived innocence and childish charm as she entwines – of all people!- Pharaoh’s daughter’s and her innate compassion  – into this story of salvation!?

How many times have we watched on our TVs and web-feeds, faces of children grown uncannily wise by the horrors  of displacement, or war, or threat, or power abused? Their tiny fists holding on to their birthright to life, hope and a future against impossible odds?

Yet again, the notion of faith is stretched even further from some notion of strong, noble piety, to include earth-scrabbling, power defying determination to be a child of life, as God intends.

Enter the foreigner, the Canaanite woman, and her fierce dignity, and her determination to claim the mercy of God for her daughter. No matter that this healer from Galilee rations his healing for people who speak his language. She knows, God is bigger than religious regulations, segregations, denominations.

No matter that she is insulted, ridiculed, forced to shout, then kneel to get his attention. Small price to pay for the prize of life itself. What would she give, what wouldn’t she give of her own life to save and heal her own child?

She mirrors God’s own strongest love, deepest compassion, fiercest protection, which has always been most evident, not among the proud, but the people the world considers to be of no account.

To bring this forward into our own life-times; one of the most compelling, motivating moments of my own formation as a woman of faith was witnessing Los Madres de Plaza de Mayo, the mothers of the disappeared, decry the Pharaoh-like military junta of Argentina to demand justice for future generations.

I also remember May 1982, when the Guatemalan government banned the singing of Mary of Nazareth’s song, the  Magnificat, because it incited Guatemalans to dreams and action for justice!

These images tell  a similar story: of women’s resilient, strident, stubborn faith at work in our own broken, world: (A slide reel of images of women: mothers of the disappeared, women of all faiths, women protesting abuse, such as the abduction of Nigerian girls, Isis atrocities in Iraq and Syria, Mother Teresa in Calcutta, etc.,  run, with no words, speaking their own truth)

Such is the faith of women of the Bible, of the world, and of many women you know and love and who have loved you. The Faith of women, is subversive, life-affirming. It questions the status quo and any power when it is used to oppress, It is stubborn, refusing to be curtailed or constrained by religion’s ridiculous barriers when they get in the way of justice, health, life, peace. It is joyful, that dark humour born often in pain, yet rising above it. It is resilient, it laughs off insult and shouts over indifference or cruelty.

It is all these things, and more, because it mirrors the ways women have come to know and honour God. And this faith, shared among men and women, remakes worlds.

Let’s sing it, this faith, women and men together. (MV 120)

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