Sunday 23 August 2020
One of the complaints of feminist biblical scholars and theologians is that the voice of women is often silenced in the Bible. They suggest that the Bible is written from within a patriarchal society and so men are always seen to be the only ones of any importance. You might remember the story of Jacob working for his uncle Laban and eventually being given Laban’s two daughters, Leah and Rachel, as wives. That’s pretty patriarchal!
The whole transaction was based on an understanding in those times that the daughters were as much Laban’s property as his cattle and sheep. Their lot did not improve with marriage – the owner simply changed.
But today, we have a reading in which women are not only to the fore, but their actions are critical to the survival of the Hebrew people.
Firstly, we have the two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah. Can I just say, in passing, that these two women must have been very significant within the ranks of the Hebrews. I say that because we are told their names!!
None of the other people in this episode are given their names – not the king of Egypt, not Moses’ mother and father, not Pharaoh’s daughter, not Moses’ sister. Shiphrah and Puah are remembered by name.
And the reason they are so significant in the Hebrews’ story is that they were in a position to do something about preserving their people – and they did it!
What Pharaoh proposed was systematic genocide. As no male Hebrews would reach marriageable age if they were all killed at birth, Hebrew women would have to take Egyptian partners and so, over time, Hebrew bloodlines would dilute until they disappeared.
At great risk to themselves, they circumvented Pharaoh’s plan. And it needed people like them to take the action on a broad scale. It could not rely on sporadic action by individuals to protect an individual male child.
Which, of course, brings us to Moses’ mother. Having been assisted by Shiphrah and Puah to preserve her son’s life initially, she finds that she can no longer ensure his safety.
Her plan of hiding the child in a basket among the reeds would only guarantee the child’s death by exposure – unless she was aware of the bathing habits of the Pharaoh’s daughter. Her plan seems well formed and her daughter, who we could assume from later texts is Miriam, is in on the plan.
And so, Moses is restored to his mother to be raised until he grows up. Once again, Moses’ mother and sister were in a position to do something – and they did it!
Could I summarise the thread I am drawing out of this text from Exodus? These women find themselves in a position to do something about the possible disappearance of their people- and they do it.
I want to jump forward now to the Gospel reading. After Peter’s inspired declaration of faith in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, we have this famous text found only in Matthew: “…you are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church…” This particular text has been used in a particular way throughout the centuries to argue for the central position of the bishop of Rome.
That is a complex area that has generated more than its share of debate through time. This morning I only wish to draw on the image of Jesus establishing a church – a community of followers. He gives his promise that the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. This is a text about the broad Christian Church. Obviously, when spoken by Jesus, we did not have a multitude of Christian denominations. So, I think we need to be careful about assuming that this is a promise to any one of those particular denominations specifically.
We need to be careful about assuming that it is a promise for example to the Communion of Anglican Churches. Or to the Anglican Church of Australia. To do so, is to read far more into the text than is viable.
We need to take seriously the challenge that faces us as Anglicans. In a sense, we are faced with same sort of gradual annihilation that Pharaoh’s plan posed for the Hebrews.
Do we see ourselves, like the women in the reading from Exodus today, as being in the position to do something and being prepared to do it? Do we ever lie awake in bed at night unable to sleep and worry about the future of our Church? Do we ever sit down quietly at times and think of ways that each of us could spread the gospel to others that we meet in our lives?
The problem is: if you and I don’t do it – who will?
The Anglican tradition of Christianity offers to people who want to follow Jesus a middle way. We do not require people to accept the constraints of centralised authority as does the Roman Catholic tradition nor the constraints of biblical fundamentalism as do many Protestant traditions.
Our tradition, based upon the three-legged stool of Scripture, Tradition, and the use of our Reason, offers to many people a form of Christianity that is meaningful and helpful. The only people that can make others aware of the treasure that is our much-maligned Anglican tradition of Christianity are you and me.
We are the ones in a position to do something about the possible disappearance of the Anglican tradition from this country. It mightn’t happen tomorrow, but the possibility for us to disappear is there just as it was for the Hebrews if the Pharaoh’s policy of killing male children at birth had been able to gain traction.
But it didn’t we know because Shiphrah and Puah and Moses’ mother and Moses’ sister were in a position to do something about it – and they did it! Despite the risks involved.
The message of this text could not be more relevant to us today as a parish congregation. May God give us the grace to be prepared take risks in venturing into appropriate strategies and ministries as we attempt to proclaim his kingdom as faithful Anglicans in this place.
Let us pray to God that God will embolden us to see what needs to be done for the health of our Church and to do it.
Archdeacon Allan Paulsen