“But who are we in all this?”

A sermon preached by Rev. Erin Counihan at Oak Hill Presbyterian Church, St. Louis on 8/24/14
Readings: Exodus 1:8-2:10 and Romans 12:1-8

I have been blessed with great mentors in my life. One of the best pieces of advice, for my own faith journey, that a great mentor of mine once shared with me was to put myself into scripture. Now, before you get the image of Joey from “Friends” in that London episode where he has a pop-up map of London and boldly proclaims, “So, I was in my map…” and have images of me standing inside my bible, let me explain. This mentor challenged me to place myself in the scene. To try on each role, to be each of the characters. To see the events unfolding through each person’s eyes. To live their verson of the story. To see from their angle, but to also hear with their ears, to smell with their nose and to taste with their tongue.

And today’s Exodus tale, with its oppressive regime, classism, racism, talk of brutality and extermination, fear and control, privilege and outcasts, well, given the headlines here in our community and around the world this week, it’s not too hard to place ourselves in this story.

And I don’t know about you, but I immediately jump into the role of the midwives. I want to be Shiphrah and Puah in this story.  I love these midwives. They are smart and bold and caring and crafty. Who doesn’t want to be the midwife in this story? They save the babies! They save the nation! They stick it to the man. They are faithful to God.

But who are Shiphah and Puah?

Shiphah and Puah, as they are identified by the meanings of their names in Hebrew which are “beautiful” and “splendid”. They are the women charged with carrying out Pharaoh’s brutal edict, but instead use what power they have to reject his authority and remain loyal to their God. They are the only ones in this story who are named, until Moses is given his name in the end of this story, and we hear of their mighty protest, but we don’t ever really get to know them. Shiphrah and Puah are a mystery. Scholars dispute their identities. In the NRSV version of the text they are called “the Hebrew midwives” but the sentence construction could also read, “the midwives of the Hebrews”. So were they Egyptian or Hebrew? And for, this week, this piece of information is crucial. Were they Hebrew women standing up to their oppressors or were they Egyptian women standing in solidarity with the Hebrews and fighting on their behalf? Did they know Pharaoh, had they met with him before? Did they have reason to assume would believe them when they issued their little white lie? What risk were they taking here?

And what about Moses’ mom? I wouldn’t mind being her in this story either. The smart lady who hides her son. Who in faith crafts a basket for him and trusts God will protect him in the reeds of the Nile.

We could be Pharaoh’s daughter who takes in the cursed Hebrew boy. Who has pity for him and perhaps his people? Who openly defies her own father when a child’s life is at stake? Who is willing to listen to the Hebrew girl and who is willing to pay a Hebrew woman to care for this secret child.

We could be Moses’ sister, boldly jumping out to speak to the daughter of Pharaoh. Smart enough to offer his mother, her mother, for the task of raising this baby on behalf of Pharaoh’s daughter. Protecting her brother, but putting herself and her whole family at risk, too.

These are the folks we Christians want to be in this story. We want to be the heroes. We want to save the babies! We want to be the faithful. We want to be the righteous.

But can we also consider where we might see ourselves in the other characters? Can we consider how and when we might be Pharaoh? We see others, who don’t come from where we come from, who are more numerous than we are, who don’t look like us, who we perceive as powerful, but who we do not know. Who have done nothing to threaten us. Who have not risen up or taken arms against us, but who we hate just for who they are or where they come from. Can we consider how we have perhaps held others down out of fear?

Can we consider how we are the taskmasters? How we follow orders and don’t ask why. How we obey blindly. How we are ruthless in our demands and impositions?

How about “all his people”? The text says that Pharaoh commanded all his people to throw those baby boys into the Nile. Did they do it? Did other moms hide their babies? Did other moms fight back? We hear a lot about the women in this story, what were the men doing? Were they talking about this horrific situation? Were they organizing a rebellion? Were they planning other ways to save the babies? Were Hebrew men speaking with Egyptian men? Were common, every-day Egyptians aware of what was happening? What about the other children? The older siblings? The teenagers? Were they fighting back? Were they plotting an escape?

Because, in this story, we can’t all be Shiphah or Puah or Pharaoh’s daughter or Moses’ sister. These were great people of faith, but I can’t imagine that they were the only faithful in the area. So what were the others doing? How did they get involved? How did they witness to what was happening? How did they tell their friends about what they saw? How did they share the story? The grief? The hope?

Friends, because that is where we are. We were not Michael Brown. We are not his family. We were not Darren Wilson. We are not his family either. We are not a county prosecutor. We are not ISIS fighters nor are we persecuted religious refugees in the hills of Iraq. But we are the body of Christ. We are the beloved community of faith who name and claim Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. We may not have experienced the horror of Pharaoh’s command, but we are a part of the story, we are in the scene.

So then, who will we identify with? Who will we try to understand? Can we be humble enough to see where we are in each of the players? Can we be bold enough to talk about it? Because we may not all be called to scoop babies out of the Nile or reject a harsh ruler’s command. We may not all be called to paint signs and stand in protest. We may not all be called to march. But we are called to witness. We are called to be a part of the story. We are called to examine our roles in the narrative. And we are called to recognize God’s presence in all of it. And we are called to talk about it.

So where are you in this story? Where are you in our city’s story? Where are you in our church’s story? Because, remember, church, what Paul says to us today:

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God- what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Hear us, Lord Jesus. We are shouting for you!

A sermon (which ended up being more of a prayer) preached by Rev. Erin Counihan at Oak Hill Presbyterian Church, St. Louis on August 17, 2014 (8 days after Michael Brown was killed).

Readings: GENESIS 45:1-15 and MATTHEW 15:(10-20) 21-28

 

“Lord, help me,” she cried.

Hey! Did you hear her, Jesus? Did you hear her shouting for you? Did you hear her call, no beg, for help? She needed you.

Did you see how she tracked you down, she ran to you, she found you? I know she’s not one of you. I mean, she’s a woman. She’s a Canaanite. She’s one of the pagan enemies of Israel. But, Lord, she recognized you and came to where you are and she called to you for help. Because she believed in you. Did you hear her?

You did. You did, but you didn’t respond. You were silent. And your people, they asked to send her away. Then, worse than your silence, then you responded and you were harsh and mean and you called her a dog.

Jesus, did you hear him? He needed you too. He put up his hands. He raised his arms in surrender. His blood had already been spilled on that street, but he still breathed and Jesus he needed you!

Jesus, did you hear them? All of them. So many of them. They look just like him. They’ve been stopped before. They’ve been held before. They’ve been beaten before. They’ve seen that look in an officer’s eye. They came out and called to you. They were calling for justice. They called for the truth. They wanted answers. They needed answers. They needed to be treated with respect. They didn’t need guns and smoke and gas pulled on them.

Jesus, did you hear them? The business owners. Neighbors. Mothers. Grandfathers. Praying for safety. Praying for the violence to stop.

Jesus, did you hear the media? Trying to show the world what was happening, to share the real stories, but instead getting arrested and shut down.

Jesus, did you hear all of them, on Facebook and twitter, in coffee shops and hardware stores, offices and beauty salons and libraries. They can’t stop talking about this. Why don’t their white friends understand? Why don’t they stand up with them?

Jesus, did you hear them? All the way from Palestine and Egypt, sending messages of support, because they’ve been through it, too. Because they have tips to share of how to live through the tear gas.

Jesus, did you hear them? The other cops in this city. Good cops. Who do their job fairly. But who won’t get a fair shake. Not now.

Jesus, did you hear him? The man who told the crowd that he was pulled over just this week, for driving while black, and his 5 year old son burst into tears when the cop spoke with his dad, because he was scared his daddy was gonna die. Do you hear how our children are learning from this?

Jesus, do you hear us!? Do you hear that we are sick of this? Do you hear that we can’t live like this! With our police turned into military. With racism so long and deep. With trust so bruised. With death so close. With tension so strong. With fear so real it keeps us awake at night. With peace so far it’s become hard to imagine.

Jesus, DO YOU HEAR US?

Because we are shouting. And like that Canaanite woman so many years ago, we are desperate for you, for the healing only you can bring. And like that woman, so many years ago, we are shouting to you because we believe. We believe YOU CAN HEAL THIS. So, like she did, we now run to you. We shout. Over and over again. We call to you, “Lord, help us.” Please, heal our children. Heal our police force. Heal our history and our generalizations and our assumptions. Heal our community. Heal our own hearts. Throw us the crumbs of your love and peace.

And if an enemy woman in a foreign land can through her desperation, persistence, and faith, change YOUR mind, Lord, then maybe our minds can be changed too. Perhaps there is hope for each of us. For those of us who are slow to listen, for those of us who’ve seen it all before, for those of us who are still singing the same protest songs after 50 years and who are sick that we still have to. Lord, let your healing enter our conversations. Use these tragedies, in Ferguson, in Iraq, in Maryland, in Staten Island, in Mexico, everywhere, to start conversations anew. Let the relationships formed in response to this violence be blessed with your name, Lord. Let us speak to one another in faith and hope, let us shout at the authorities in hope, let us respond to the teenager who calls to us from the Quick Trip in hope, let us walk together in your name in hope, Jesus. Because we believe in you. Great is our faith, now, even in our desperation. So we run to you. You, the one who heals the sick. The one who teaches the children. The one who helps the poor. The one who opens the eyes of the blind. We believe in you, Lord Jesus. So we run to you. And we shout and call out and beg. In faith. In hope.

Lord, have mercy on us.

Lord, help us.

Amen.

A Prayer for Our City

I haven’t been sleeping much. The violence in our new hometown of St. Louis is breaking my heart. I changed my sermon at the last minute and preached about it a bit this past Sunday, following the shooting of Michael Brown. But last night, the violence came closer to me and my kid and I was afraid. I wrote this on my phone around 1:30am. I chanted it to myself and to God, over and over again, until I fell asleep.

I believe in God.
I love God.
I know God loves me.

I also love the city. I love the activity, the museums, the parks, the restaurants, and mostly, the people. I think God loves cities. So much of our biblical history takes place in cities.

I came to the city, to this city, by both call and by choice. Yes, I felt called, and a congregation felt called to me, too. But also, I chose to hear and flow that call. And they did too.

It was important for me to live in the city. I don’t know how pastors serve urban churches when they don’t love in the city. It seems false to me. How do you preach, week after week, to people who are living a different reality than you are? I fought to live in the city. In this neighborhood. I wanted to be able to walk to church. I wanted neighbors to walk into our church. I drove the streets and walked the sidewalks for weeks. I applied for more than a handful of apartments. I was out on waiting lists and I was rejected. I wrote letters and threw my clergy status around and plead my case. Church members wanted me to give up and move to the nearby suburbs. I held strong, even though it meant we stayed in hotels and with church members for long than anyone wanted. I finally found an apartment in the city, in the church’s neighborhood, on a lovely block and moved in today. Just today.

And as I was putting my kid to bed tonight, four blocks away, a man was shot while out walking his dogs. Two men tried to rob him. The man didn’t have anything on him. They shot him.

This city, this incredible, creative, friendly, vibrant city is heartbroken this week. The tragedy in Ferguson is all over us. People are angry. People are scared. People are anxious.

I am scared. I am worried. I am furious. But I am hopeful. I am trying to focus on the hopeful.

Neighbors are talking to one another. Business owners are talking to one another. Clergy and community organizers are sharing. We are building relationships. We are looking out for each other.

So, tonight, another night when sleep evades me, replaced by worry and fear, and although I jump at every frog chirp and ice maker shift, I am hopeful.

Because I believe in a God who loves me. Who loves us. Who loves cities. And I believe this city is starting to work together.

Amen.