Compassion and Babies

Exodus 1:15-21(1:20) – June 18, 2017

Exod 1 Pharaoh and the Midwives, Golden Haggadah, Catalonia, early 14th century, British Library,

“Compassion and Babies”

Who doesn’t love babies? Babies are sure to put smiles on the faces of many, many people, all over the world. Chubby little hands and feet, delicate ears, nose and mouth. They are adorable when they smile and yawn, and little angels when they are asleep.

I realize there are some people who are not wild about babies, but these are in the minority. Could we focus on one particular person who did not like babies at all? Our Scripture reading today from Exodus tells us a good deal about him. Starting at verse 8, “Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us.”

Joseph and his brothers had been dead for many years—perhaps centuries. This king of Egypt did not remember anything of the marvelous things that Joseph did and the wonderful miracle he helped bring about, assisting all of Egypt and the regions surrounding to survive a great famine that lasted seven years. No, as far as the Pharaoh was concerned, he had forgotten all that history in the mists of a far-off past.

The King of Egypt had grown afraid of the numerous descendants of Jacob, who were growing more numerous and prolific all the time.14 The Egyptians made their lives bitter with harsh labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their harsh labor the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly.” In other words, the Egyptians were using these newcomers to their land as servants, even as slaves.

But, this hard labor—forced labor—was not enough. Pharaoh and many other Egyptians continued to be intimidated by the Israelites. When enough was enough, the Pharaoh called the two midwives to him, the ones who helped the Israelite women to give birth, and gave them a terrible command. He commanded genocide.15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, 16 “When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.”

I suspect everyone here can guess what the midwives’ reaction is to this terrible command. Horror, shock, and revulsion, followed by refusal and resolve.

According to Dr. Brueggemann, “This narrative plunges [us] into a world of danger, brutality and desperation. It is a world into which a settled congregation does not easily go.” [1] Sure, this Scripture reading from Exodus is definitely not warm and fuzzy.  Many congregations regularly romanticize the Bible, and thus ignore the difficult parts, the ominous conflicts, the slavery, wars, death and destruction.

Imagine, so many powerless little babies, just born into this world. Remember the children’s sermon? Remember how certain people today are powerless, too? Similar to our activity during children’s time, here is a story in the book of Exodus about babies in danger who needed help. The babies couldn’t help themselves, and others—the midwives—came along to be sure they were safe.

Continuing from Exodus, “The midwives answered to God, not the king, and so they let the boy babies live, too. The king called for them, and when they came, he asked them, “Why have you done this? Why have you let the boys live?” The midwives said, “Oh, king! Hebrew women are so strong—they give birth on their own, before we can even arrive!”

These courageous women defied the direct orders of the Pharaoh. “They feared God more than they feared the new king, and for that reason they refused to participate in the state-authorized killing.” [2] What is more, they give a wonderful reason for not carrying out Pharaoh’s horrible plan: they say that the Hebrew women give birth too quickly! These women are filled with vigor and a liberated power for life, and for life-bearing, too. [3]

The Hebrew women were not the delicate flowers that many Egyptian women supposedly were. Instead, the midwives appeal to what appears to be Pharaoh’s own prejudicial sense of the relationship between physical difference and ethnicity. They insist that “the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them” (Exodus 1:19).

The Hebrew word here for “vigorous” shares the root of the word “life.” The midwives deceive Pharaoh, and at the same time use language that also winks at the reader: the Hebrew women are full of life. [4] Their identity as God’s people resists death. Death is what Pharaoh demands to bring into their powerless lives—but it does not work. The midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, not only defy the King of Egypt, they also show compassion to the Israelite boy babies and their families, as well. Their community grew and became even stronger, and God was pleased with the midwives; their disobedience to the King was faithfulness to God.

According to the king, as Pharaoh, he was mighty, wily and powerful; on the other hand, the boy babies of the Israelites had no power, and neither did their parents.

Do we know what “powerless” means?  It’s to need help from others because we cannot help ourselves. Who else might be powerless? I mean, with less power in our world, or our own lives, or in their lives. Who are some people you can think of that don’t have much power in our world today? How can we help these people? Are there ways we all could show compassion and kindness to them?

This week offers us a story of humankind’s inhumanity to one another, and it is a story that gets played out in every generation. Why are we human beings unable to end our hunger for finding a group to be bullied or ostracized, be it on the playground at our local elementary school, in our neighborhood, or in the land that God promised to the Jews all those generations ago? [5]

It is the same old, same old story. One group of people come to consider themselves superior to another. Perhaps they think they are superior because of their appearance, or because they enjoy a more satisfying lifestyle, or they practice a particular religious faith. Maybe they feel they are superior because they have interpreted the Bible in such a way that they have come to believe God supports their views and lifestyle, and God condemns the views and lifestyles of those who differ from them. [6]

Who in our community enjoys favor and who is scapegoated? How does our church address these problems? Do we speak out? If not, why? Who stands to gain and who stands to lose from speaking out or keeping quiet? Can you put your own story into the story of the Hebrew people suffering under the abuses at the hands of the Egyptians? [7]

Thank God for these midwives, for Shiphrah and Puah. They stepped up, they came alongside of the Hebrew women, and they showed kindness and compassion.

How can we act today with kindness and compassion? How can we come alongside of someone in our neighborhood who is being bullied, ostracized, or even abused?

God willing, we can, and we will! Amen.

 

(A heartfelt thank you to An Illustrated Compassion: Learning to Love Like God. Many sermon ideas and thoughts came directly from this series.  I appreciate this intergenerational curriculum, which is the basis for my summer sermon series on compassion. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry. Thanks so much for such great ideas!)

[1] Brueggemann, Walter, Exodus, The new Interpreter’s Bible: general articles & introduction, commentary, & reflections for each book of the Bible, Vol. 1 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 696.

[2] Ibid, 695.

[3] Ibid, 696.

[4] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2169  Commentary, Cameron B.R. Howard, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2014.

[5] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/lectionary-calendar/eleventh-sunday-after-pentecost4#notes1

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

Advertisements

Compassion through Hospitality

Genesis 18:4-5 – June 11, 2017

Exod 18 Abraham bends down before Holy Trinity - angelic visitors at Mamre - mosaic in Monreale Cathedral

“Compassion through Hospitality”

Almost everyone enjoys visiting with friends. This can involve meeting for a cup of coffee or tea, going out for a meal, or having friends over at your house. What do you do to make friends or relatives welcome at your table? How do you like to be welcomed, when you go over to someone’s house or apartment?

These are great things to think about. We begin our first sermon of the summer, our Compassion sermon series. Let’s take a look at Genesis and at Abraham, the friend of God. He and his wife Sarah were on a nomadic journey—a very long caravan camping trip that lasted for years and years. While they were traveling, they camped for a time in the land of Canaan near what is now the town of Hebron.

God appeared to him. Here’s how it happened: “The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day.” Right off the bat, this bible reading lets us know an important fact. It’s sort of the summary statement at the beginning of this reading, and then the passage explains what it’s all about.

This first verse tells us a lot. Abraham had his tent set up by some big trees. There wasn’t any air conditioning in those days, so he looked for some big trees to provide natural cooling. Abraham sat at the entrance to his tent—a cool place, to catch any little breath of wind drifting by. We also know it was the middle of the day—a really hot time in that semi-desert terrain!

Now that we’ve explained more about it, in your mind’s eye, can’t you just see Abraham sitting there, catching the breeze in the cool shade, at the door of his tent?

What happens next? “Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.”

We are not sure how much Abraham knew about these three men, but he goes out of his way to greet these three strangers. In many places in the world, people give you a warm welcome when you come to their home. It’s certainly true of many people and places throughout the Middle East.

“As a nomad, Abraham and his family lived in tents, as they traveled with their grazing herds in the desert. The few who lived in the harsh deserts of Judea depended upon each other for survival. Visitors were treated very well, for they brought companionship and help for the host. The practice of hospitality was highly prized in Abraham’s time.[1]

“Abraham and Sarah offer hospitality to strangers that come to their camp, upon seeing the strangers coming in the heat of the day, it’s suddenly high gear hospitality.  Hospitality would be the duty of any desert dweller of the time.” [2] I mean, really greet you! They give any stranger an extravagant welcome.

Let’s turn to a modern-day example. When our children, or grandchildren, or nieces and nephews go over to a friend’s house, what are some things that might make these young people feel welcome? Yes, their friend might offer them a drink or a snack. That is great. But, let’s go further. What if their friend goes the extra step? What if their friend lets our children play with their toys? What if their friend lets them pick what show they would like to watch on cable or DVD? How about inviting them to stay for dinner, or even inviting them to sleep over? All these ways of helping them feel welcome in their home are ways of showing “hospitality.”

Just as Abraham and Sarah welcomed these unexpected strangers, can’t we do the same thing? Maybe make a special effort to welcome each person into our house—or church, regardless of whether we know them or not? We can help them feel noticed, cared for and safe in joining our group of friends. How did Abraham show these three people they were welcome?

“Abraham said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree.”

Let’s play a little game with this bible reading, a topsy turvy game.

What if Abraham did not feel like showing hospitality to the three strangers? What would that have looked like? What might have happened, then? As the three persons came near the tent, Abraham might hide inside and shut the tent flaps tight. When they knocked at the tent door, Abraham could tell them to go away, in an angry voice. If the three persons insisted that they were thirsty or hungry, Abraham might yell that they should go some other place, and freeload off of someone else.

If all that had been true, bible history might have happened very differently!

But, no! Abraham and Sarah were fine hosts. Let’s read more of the bible passage: “Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant.” “Very well,” they answered, “do as you say.”

As a fellow pastor commented, “There was no Holiday Inn, or highway rest area, there is only Abraham and Sarah’s camp and their herds and their well. So, when strangers appear in the heat of the day, needing a wash and a rest, you tend to their needs. Some kind of host switch has been flipped.  Abraham runs, he hastens, he quickly prepares.  His hospitality seems to go above and beyond – the best of the herd, the best flour and in abundance for the meal.” [3]

Modern times have not changed hospitality. How do good hosts show us their hospitality today? They offer food and drink and try to make us as comfortable as they can.

I remember my dear prayer partner Zhou Hui. She was born in mainland China, grew up in a poor neighborhood in a medium-sized town, did really well in school, and was able to get awarded a scholarship to university. She came here to the United States as a graduate student, and became a naturalized citizen. She lives near here, and her children attend New Trier High School. She is a devout Christian, and a real pray-er. I thank God I was able to be her prayer partner for years.

I bring up Zhou Hui because she always bends over backwards to be a wonderful hostess. She has the spiritual gift of hospitality, and she always offers wonderful food and drink to her guests. I can remember many, many enjoyable meals my young children and I had at her house. That is just what Abraham did here. He and Sarah hurried up and offered their unexpected visitors wonderful food and drink.

Abraham and Sarah not only showed these strangers genuine hospitality, they showed compassion—Godly compassion.

Hospitality is the way we help others feel welcomed and cared for, and that we can do this anywhere we are: for friends at our homes, new students in our classrooms or new neighbors on our block.

This narrative is a beautiful reminder that when we show compassion and kindness to other people, we are showing compassion and kindness to God.

When we read about Abraham, we might think, “How nice! What a good job, showing kindness and hospitality.” I have news for you: Jesus shows us hospitality! Jesus shows each of us kindness and compassion! Does this change the way we see other people in our lives, especially those we don’t know very well? Or, those we don’t even know at all?

How might we show hospitality to others? I know we pride ourselves on our kind, compassionate welcome to anyone who comes into our church. We can show our community that St. Luke’s Church witnesses to the love of Christ, not only with words, but doing what we do best: serving food and showing people a warm welcome.

Hospitality is a wonderful way to show everyone the love of God and show kindness and compassion—the same way God has already shown love, kindness, compassion and welcome to each of us. Let us go out, and do likewise.

Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://www.word-sunday.com/Files/c/16-c/FR-16-c.html “Abraham Welcomes the Lord,” Larry Broding’s Word-Sunday.Com: A Lectionary Resource for Catholics.

[2] https://seattlemennonite.org/2014/07/27/the-last-laugh/

[3] https://seattlemennonite.org/2014/07/27/the-last-laugh/

(A heartfelt thank you to An Illustrated Compassion: Learning to Love Like God. Many sermon ideas and thoughts came directly from this series.  I appreciate this intergenerational curriculum, which is the basis for my summer sermon series on compassion. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry. Thanks so much for such great ideas!)