by Ellen Sims
Sermon text: Exodus 1:8-2:10
(Note: I’m deviating from the Revised Common Lectionary for a 3-part sermon series on the Hebrew Bible character, Miriam.)
The Bible’s first story about Miriam may seem to place her in a merely supporting role. Her name is not even disclosed until chapters later. But Miriam will become the first person, male or female, the Bible identifies as a prophet (Bellis 102). Because the cultures that produced the Bible were patriarchal, it is no wonder there are fewer stories about the mothers of our faith than the fathers of our faith, though women of extraordinary faith certainly existed in the past as they do today. Yet careful Bible study reveals quite a number of women whose stories did manage to survive that bias. The sister of Moses and Aaron is one of my favorite models for ministry. In each of the three sermons in this series on Miriam, I hope to use parts of her story to engage us as a congregation in thinking about our own ministry. As a young congregation, we’ve not yet had time to talk intentionally about many aspects of congregational life. Miriam’s stories give us a chance to do that. Specifically, Miriam can teach us about 1) how we care for one another, 2) how we worship and pray together, and 3) and how we strengthen our sense of community.
Moses, of course, is clearly the hero of Exodus who frees his people from Egyptian bondage. But the book of Exodus begins by focusing on women, without whom the exodus event could not have been accomplished. The women are the first liberators of the Hebrew people. You don’t believe me? Look back at the first chapter of Exodus. Here are mentioned two midwives, Puah and Shiphrah, cleverly defying Pharaoh’s order to kill all male Hebrew babies at birth. Instead, they devise a ruse to protect the newborns. In chapter 2 we are introduced to a Levite mother, later identified as Jochebed, who realizes she can no longer hide her 3-month-old son and saves him by letting another woman raise him. Then there’s that other woman, Pharaoh’s daughter, who raises the eventual liberator of the Hebrews. Could the Hebrew people have been liberated without these loving, courageous, clever women? The people’s freedom began in THEIR hearts.
But the fifth woman in the Moses story is our focus today and the next 2 Sundays. Our attention this evening is on young Miriam. She seems to do very little in this story; she speaks only once. At first glance the tale hardly foreshadows Miriam’s eventual power as a prophet—which I’ll get to next week when it will become clear that this female’s role was neither silent nor marginal. But even in today’s simple story, the few words Miriam speaks proved critical. The Egyptian princess, curious about the floating basket, had merely observed that the child was Hebrew. “This must be one of the Hebrew’s children” could have meant, in light of her father’s edict, that someone needed to “dispose” of him. But Miriam perhaps read a glimmer of pity in this woman’s face. Without directly appealing for the child’s life—an act of treason—Miriam took a clever tack: she offered this woman in moral crisis an easy way to do the right thing. No ethical debate was necessary. God had softened the woman’s heart; Miriam provided a practical way to obey that tug of conscience. Neither had to speak an explicit word of treason in the presence of the others. “Let me get a nurse,” Miriam said, and the implication was: “You can save this child and can love him as your own.”
We, too, can use God-given ingenuity to make it easier for others to do the right thing. Our job may be as simple as finding practical ways to educate our community about a new unjust state law that separates immigrant families and turns good Samaritans into criminals. “Here,” our own Jenni Currie said yesterday to those at the Immigration Awareness Gathering, “let me offer you some information.” “Here,” Miriam said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “let me find you a nurse.” We can be a conduit of freedom, justice, life. (See this link for an article on an event many in our congregation attended Saturday out of concern for Alabama’s recent anti-immigrant law.)
Miriam’s active assistance, however, is not her only role. When we first meet Miriam, she is a quiet, unseen presence, wading along that reed-lined river bank, not taking her eye off the baby in the basket. The gaps in this story make me wonder what exactly were Miriam’s instructions from Jochebed, her mom. “I don’t know what to tell you, Honey,” Jochebed might have begun. “Just stay near your little brother, and for heaven’s sake, watch out for the crocodiles!” Our scripture reports with sparse detail that Moses’ sister “stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him” (Gen. 2:4). Not much of a plan! Her job was to watch and wait. Not much of a role. Miriam must have wondered what good her quiet presence could possibly accomplish.
We, too, are called sometimes simply to be present with another who is as alone and vulnerable as a baby floating in a basket. Some of you have stood vigil with friends and family in a hospital waiting room, just being there, not necessarily doing. You have held the hand of a friend in trouble. You have comforted a child who has experienced failure. You have stood by and listened, just listened, to the outpouring of some anguish. You have judged the right time to say something—but not much.
Now is the time, Open Table, early in our history, for us to consider ways we can be present to one another in those eventual times of tragedy or sorrow. When one of us is hurting, physically or emotionally, what we may need from one another is simple, quiet, sensitive presence. No platitudes that everything’s going to turn out just fine. No advice when none has been requested. No forced cheeriness that denies someone else’s honest feelings. Sure, there are times when we need others to help us solve problems. But most of the time we need to feel we have been heard. Young Miriam stands at some distance from the child, possibly for a very long time, and speaks only once at just the right moment. Notice she speaks in the form of a question: “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women?” At times it is appropriate to connect another to our ultimate source of help. But often we simply stand alongside those in need or ask good questions that the other uses to reach her own conclusions.
Thankfully, the ministry of presence is not a specialized gift for the few. Some churches “deputize” and train certain lay leaders to care for the sick and bereaved in their midst. Some churches have staff members hired for those purposes. At least for now, each of us is charged with noticing others’ needs and reaching out to them. All it takes is for us to be aware of another’s pain, and be willing not to run from that pain. In our anesthetized culture we are not very practiced in being present with those who are hurting. Our culture dispenses alcohol, food, entertainment, shopping, even sheer busyness as numbing agents that distract us from the hard work of facing life. We can’t handle our own pain, and we certainly don’t want to be around the pain of others. The most difficult aspect of my training as a hospital chaplain involved remembering that it was not my job to cheer up the patients I attended. That training in listening went against my inclination to offer advice or cheer. My instinct is to run from someone’s pain or anger. But in ministry we sometimes are called just to BE with someone in pain. Each of us is called, at times, into this kind of ministry.
One woman tells the story of having to make a necessary trip to a dentist during the weeks she was spending at the hospital as her newborn child was slowly dying in the neonatal intensive care unit. The only time this young mother had left the hospital in those weeks was for this emergency visit to the dentist. Probably noting the woman’s exhaustion but not knowing her situation, the dentist asked her, “Are you okay? Are you ill” to which the mother replied, “I’m not sick. I’ve given birth to a child who has only days to live.” And then her tears started to flow, unbidden. Without a word, the dentist turned and walked out of the room. At first the woman thought he’d gone to get some implement and would return. Clearly he had not finished because she was left pinioned to the elevated chair with the dental tray in her lap. But the dentist never came back. She was left stranded in a dental chair because this decent man could not bear to be in the presence of that kind of pain.
When we minister to others in Christ’s name we sometimes have the very simple, very challenging responsibility of representing Christ’s abiding, unflinching presence. These are times to put aside our own needs to fix someone or to take care of our own discomfort. These are times to watch, wait, listen with our whole heart, and perhaps speak at just the right time, in just a few words. These can be sacred moments.
A former seminary professor of mine illustrates the ministry of presence by telling about an unlikely exemplar of that gift. Dr. Diane Lobody was raised in the Bronx. Several family members worked in or near the World Trade Center. On the day after 9/11, she was teaching a class at the seminary in Ohio, still waiting to hear if friends and family in New York had perished in the previous day’s tragedy. She tried to begin the class seated at the front of the room, but soon she was overcome with emotion. Now in that particular class was a blind student whose seeing eye dog spent each class session beneath his master’s desk, as still and unobtrusive as the back packs that littered the classroom floor. But as Diane began to cry, the dog left his master and approached the professor, placing his paw in her hand. Instinctively, Diane began to pet the dog. Gradually, Diane regained her composure and was able to continue the lesson. And for the remainder of the class, the dog sat with her, his paw in her hand. This service dog had sensed who really needed his presence that difficult day.
As disciples of Jesus ministering to a hurting world, you and I are sometimes called to simply bear witness to God’s loving presence beside a vulnerable soul among the dangerous river reeds. We don’t need to offer simplistic solutions. Sometimes, like Miriam, we can speak up at just the right moment. We might recommend a spiritual book, invite a friend to Open Table, share a story from our own spiritual journey. Sometimes we suggest a creative solution so that a morally conflicted person can do the right thing. But mostly Miriam shows me that we may simply need to be with one who is alone and vulnerable, be there when words fail, be there as a human manifestation of God’s loving presence. As Frederick Buechner has said, “It is no wonder that just the touch of another human being at a dark time can be enough to save the day.”
One reason we practice moments of silence together here is to resist our culture’s expectation that we fill every human encounter with words and noise. The spiritually mature can appreciate the pregnant pause, can mine the silence for meaning, can draw strength and comfort from a gentle touch, a steady gaze. The spiritually mature can feel deeply another’s heartbreak and yet remain bravely committed to standing alongside the heartbroken.
This soul-satisfying solidarity is possible because we are not alone. The Comforting Spirit that unites us is with us even as we are standing with others. The Spirit of Jesus the Compassionate is with us “to the end of the age”—as he promised. We are not alone among the river reeds. We are not alone in illness, in loss, in financial distress, in emotional despair. We are not alone. Thanks to be to God!
Ever present God,
Teach us to wait and watch.
Grant us the loving patience to bear with those who are hurting, to be fully present with another in sorrow or pain.
May we be as Christ to all whom we meet.
We pray in the name of Jesus and his enduring Spirit of compassion. Amen.
Bellis, Alice Ogden. Helpmates, Harlots, Heroes: Women’s Stories in the Hebrew Bible. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994.
Buechner, Frederick. Whistling in the Dark: An ABC Theologized. HarperCollins, 1988.