Sermon: Creatively Courageous Communities

When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.

Exodus 2:2-4

In his book Where God Happens, Archbishop Rowan Williams suggests that the “church is always renewed from the edges rather than from the center,”[1] that it matters what voices we listen to because they will shape how we live out our mission as the Body of Christ. If this is true, and I believe it is, then it behooves us to pay close attention to scripture, particularly to the voices that too often get shafted in favor of others. To be perfectly honest, many times it is the voices of women who get shafted in favor of men. Women often exist in scripture as objects that prop up the better-developed narratives of men.

Our reading from Exodus is no different. Those of us with any passing knowledge of scripture assume that Exodus is really all about Moses leading the enslaved Israelites out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. Right? Except that focusing solely on Moses alone as an agent of God completely misses the community of women who saved him over and over again. Even in the face of incomprehensible odds, the women around the supposed central character in Exodus find ways of creatively crafting courageous communities of co-conspirators with the sole purpose of preserving and protecting life.

In her essay on the book of “Exodus,” Hebrew Bible scholar Judy Fentress-Williams, priest and professor at Virginia Theological Seminary, suggests that contrary to the cult of personality that has been built up around Moses, at least as Exodus describes him “Moses was a reluctant, seemingly ill-suited leader who never made peace with his role as prophet.”[2] Fentress-Williams astutely points out that “the agents of redemption are women, sometimes foreign, and marginalized” and that unlike Moses “the women in these stories work with others, using a variety of methods to redeem life.”[3]

Now, I must admit, when I first reflected on the words of Dr. Fentress-Williams, I had to let it sit and marinate a bit. I had to peel back the layers of my own male privilege and understand how and why this story was constructed to place Moses at the center even when there was this whole community of courageous women around him working every step of the way to save his life. What if Exodus is less about us being like Moses and more about us following the blessed steps of Shiprah and Puah, Jocheved, Miriam, and Pharaoh’s daughter? What if Exodus is trying to teach us how to dismantle division and injustice by reminding us about the power of creatively collaborative communities?

It is no secret that we are living in an incredibly polarized society. Rather than seeking common ground to progress our common life, our public discourse has become a series of slug fests with the winner being the one who can land the hardest punch. Our politician don’t seem terribly interesting in collaboration and often opt for conquest instead. I have spoken to enough of you to know that as entertaining as this might be for a brief moment, watching our society spin apart is incredibly exhausting. Reflecting on the aftermath of the first world war and civil unrest in his native Ireland in his 1919 poem entitled “The Second Coming,” W.B. Yeats writes a poem whose words sound strikingly appropriate for our context nearly a century later:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.[4]

What are we do to when all around us feels unsteady, uncertain, and frankly quite frightening? What do we do when the world is spinning apart? I’ll tell you what. We put on courage and creativity and we recreate the community we want to see and experience. We do like Puah and Shiprah, Jocheved, Miriam, and Pharaoh’s daughters and work across our differences to preserve life even in the midst of death. We start from what we have in common, and then from that place of connection, seek to craft a new world baptized in compassion and nourished in grace.

Social media has had a tendency of late to be used towards negative means – bullying, hate speech, and general nastiness abound on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. But every now and then, at least for me, social media also demonstrates a strong capacity to connect. I found out that I would be moving here around the same time a friend I had long admired but never met on social media was returning to Minnesota after several years away. His name is Chris. At first appearances, Chris and I probably shouldn’t be friends. He’s is a 6’4”, white, native Minnesotan, with a sleeve of tattoos on both arms and body mod piercings. I, on the other hand am a 6’1.5”, black, sweet-tea drinking southerner, whose ear piercings have long closed, and the closest I have ever come to a tattoo was one of those washable ones that used to come in a Cracker Jack box. Chris is also an atheist and I a Christian. There are so many reasons why we shouldn’t be friends, and yet we are. We both bear the scars of Christianity that too often forgets to love. I bear the scars of white classmates calling me the n-word in high school because they though it was funny. He bears the scars of being attacked in a Chicago subway for being gay. And yet, friendship is what we have because, in addition to him simply being awesome, we both share a desire to live compassionately and gracefully in the world. In his book Faithiest, Chris shares the wisdom he has gleaned from years of working in interfaith spaces across great chasms of difference. He writes that what the world needs now is “people of all different stripes and convictions coming together to deal with the things that matter, announcing our differences without fear, enthusiastically embracing our commonalities, and intentionally seeking out points of mutuality and understanding in the face of vastly different metaphysical commitments.”[5]

I couldn’t agree more. The world doesn’t need any more division, tribalism, talk of scarcity, and fear-mongering. The world needs compassion. We – you and I – we need to remember and recover compassion. We need one another. We need community. We need “love, sweet love. It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.”

We need to reach out to build new bridges with our neighbors of different religious and non-religious backgrounds, different ethnic and racial identifications, different socio-economic realities. That’s why Paul and I have been working on a small conversation group between a few parishioners of Saint Paul’s Church and Saint Mark’s Cathedral along with some folks from Masjid An-Nur in North Minneapolis to build new relationships of mutual understanding across lines of racial, religious, and socioeconomic difference.

As people of faith in continuity with the tradition of Moses, as human beings in the tradition of Puah and Shiprah, Jocheved, Miriam, and Pharaoh’s daughter, we are called to put on courage, to awaken creativity, and to reconstruct connections that ultimately destroy hate, misunderstanding, bigotry, and fear.

Eboo Patel, a Muslim-American and founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, writes that “when thousands of people discover that their story is also someone else’s story, they have a chance of writing a new story together.”[6]

Beloved, it is time to write a new story. It is time to sing new songs. It is time to pursue a different destiny. It is time to build some new relationships. It is time to recover the voices we might have lost and overlooked, to graft their hymns into our hearts, and to reach beyond our own places of safety into the untamed wildness of the Spirit of God.

It is time, for old words and songs of fear of division have grown stale, and there are words of love which demand that you and I speak them.


[1] Rowan Williams, Where God Happens: Discovering Christ in One Another (Boston: New Seeds Books, 2005), p. 111.

[2] Judy Fentress-Williams, “Exodus” in The Africana Bible: Reading Israel’s Scriptures from Africa and the African Diaspora, ed. Hugh R. Page, Jr. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), p. 82.

[3] Ibid.

[4] W.B. Yeats, “The Second Coming”

[5] Chris Stedman, Faithiest: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious (Boston: Beacon Press, 2012), p. 133.

[6] Eboo Patel, Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation (Boston: Beacon, 2007), p. 181.

Advertisements