Sunday 23rd August 2020

grayscale photo of woman hugging baby

Hymn: Bring Many Names (whilst this is not in any of our Methodist hymn books, it is by renowned hymn writer, Brian Wren)

Prayer of approach and confession

Living God, we name You as immortal,

the Alpha and Omega of our creation,

the eternal living presence.

And now in our prayers, the immortal touches the human;

eternity dips into time,

and we are transported into Your nearer presence,

aware of Your greatness in this very place.

“Immortal, invisible, God only wise”,

we worship and adore You.

And we presume, now, when we choose,

at a time that is right of us, that You will listen,

be available to us, and hear our prayers.

What right have we to call on You when it suits us?

And yet, You bid us come.

You are ready to listen.

You will us to enter Your courts.

 You smile upon us in welcome when You see us arrive.

“Unresting, unhasting”,

You are our God.

And, because of all of this,

we come tentatively into Your presence – in awe of Your justice;

wondering whether we are worthy;

questioning whether we deserve to be here.

Yet You bid us come; You call us to confess;

You wait till we bow down; You expect our penitence.

And then You say, stand up, my friend.

Come closer. You are forgiven. You need fear no more.

“Thy justice like mountains, high soaring above thy clouds,

which are fountains of goodness and love”.

Unchanging God, we name You now as our life-giver,

who, with grace and mercy, shows You believe in us,

You need us, You want us to serve.

Take us now; free us from all reticence;

call us by name; welcome us home …

so that we can say now in Your presence:

“We blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree,

and wither, and perish, but naught changeth thee …”

These prayers we bring You,

“Great Father of glory, pure Father of light”,

in and through the name of Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen

The Lord’s Prayer

Our Father in heaven,

hallowed be your name,

your kingdom come,

your will be done,

on earth as in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread.

Forgive us our sins

as we forgive those who sin against us.

Lead us not into temptation

but deliver us from evil.

For the kingdom, the power,

and the glory are yours

now and for ever.

Amen.

Reading: Exodus 1:8 – 2:10

Reflection

This passage of scripture is one of my very favourites – the story of the midwives Shiphrah and Puah and their civil disobedience that gave birth to the possibility of exodus and liberation. Their belief in life, in all it’s beauty and wonder, emboldened their resistance, and delivered the promise of salvation.

The Pharaoh, Shiphrah and Puah’s boss, was a racist. As a slave-owner, he believed that his own ethnicity gave him and his people superiority over his foreign workers. He treated the Hebrews as sub-human, as a commodity, a possession, a means of production. And that meant they were disposable. If they failed to live up to his regime, they were eliminated. But suddenly he realises he has a new problem – they’ve been breeding and their numbers are out of control. If the Hebrews make this connection, they could rise up against their slave masters and overthrow them. They are, after all, strong, fit, physical specimens. There are so many comparisons we could make with the transatlantic slave trade that saw millions of Africans transported as a means of production, and this gave rise to many racial stereotypes – that those of African heritage are tall, strong, fit, physically imposing and therefore frightening. We continue to make these assumptions when it comes to sport – the assumption is those of African heritage are faster, taller, fitter. It gives rise to the racism that says a black man is to be feared because of his physicality. Why do you think black men are physically restrained more frequently that white men when arrested?

But back to our story; Pharaoh sees the problem with Hebrews and comes up with the perfect solution – you can’t stop them breeding, but you can cut off their roots. By killing the male babies it will weaken them, control them for a bit, stop them being such a threat. Girl babies of course, can’t be a threat. I mean, who on earth has heard of a woman standing up against authority, taking action and demanding her rights?

Pharaoh calls the midwives – they can help do his dirty work. When you go and assist at a birth, as soon as the baby is out, if it’s a boy, kill him, they are instructed. I wonder how they felt at this demand. They knew the consequences of disobeying their king. I wonder if the two of them had a conversation about how they would be executed if they didn’t carry out these orders, and what would be the point of that? The Pharaoh would just have more midwives brought forward to do what he wanted? Wouldn’t it be better to keep their heads down and obey the law? Women still needed help in labour after all. And no-one would blame them for obeying their king, from being good, well-behaved, law-abiding citizens.

Some time later Pharaoh gets the message that the number of boys hadn’t declined – he must have been furious. Who did these women think they are? He drags Shiphrah and Puah in front of him and demands an explanation. Remember, he’s a racist, and these women are quick-witted and play right into his assumptions. Well, you see, us Egyptian women, we labour for HOURS – plenty of time for midwives to be called and sit with them and see the whole thing. But those Hebrew women, those fit, strong, physical bodies, designed for physical labour of all kinds, when they go into labour it’s just a grunt and a push and the baby’s out, meaning they can get straight back to work – no time to call a midwife, no point. By the time we get there, these women are already on their feet and have hidden their new-born sons from us. The Pharaoh thinks for a moment – ah yes, that makes sense.

I wonder whether news of the resistance of these midwives spread, encouraging more people to question the injustices and wonder how they could participate. News might have reached one Hebrew woman, who must have prayed as she was in labour for God to give her a daughter, and wept when she saw she had a son instead, but became determined he should not die. She hatched a plan to save his life, putting his life above her own desire to keep him with her, knowing his safety was compromised by her presence. Because her home is dangerous, she puts him in a safer place – on the water. Our own news stories of people in dinghy’s risking drowning to save the lives of their children is echoed in the story of how the Exodus began. No parent puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land. This is, of course, the mother of Moses.

And then we have our third act of bravery, our third demonstration of civil disobedience – the baby is put on the water when his sister sees a rich woman go in for a swim. She knows this woman won’t fail to see him floating down the Nile. The woman who pulls him out knew this baby boy was a Hebrew and should be dead. But she takes this chubby cherub to her mistress. And this rich young woman also knows he is a Hebrew, but babies have that way of squirming into your heart in an instant. This woman is Pharaoh’s daughter. A daughter who defies her father.

Four women. All whose compassion was greater than their fear. All standing up against injustice. All subverting the Pharaoh. All at great personal risk. All with a belief that life is precious and must be protected. This chain of resistance extends and creates the environment that will liberate the Hebrews from slavery; that chain of resistance continues to be remembered and celebrated throughout Jewish homes today. You may have heard of the Butterfly Effect – the idea that very small changes can have immense consequences, rippling through time and space, changing lives forever. One of the messages I take from our passage today is that we might never know the effects of our actions, but our determination to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God will have ripples, will touch others lives in ways we will never know. I’m sure you have all been on the receiving end of acts of kindness and perhaps even those acts were turning points for you – the people being kind to you might never know what an impact they had on you.

We prayed earlier, ‘deliver us from evil.’ Have you ever thought of that word ‘deliver’ in a birthing context? In the context of a midwife delivering a baby? Midwives are a really interesting image for God; that God acts as our midwife, standing alongside us, assisting us in our pain, providing reassurance, constantly checking in with us, ensuring our safety and wellbeing, encouraging us to bring to birth something wonderful. A little bit later we’re going to hear the hymn, Guide me O thou Great Jehovah,‘ with the repeated line ‘Strong Deliverer.’ What if God was like a midwife, bringing to birth new possibilities from our depth, confirming strength we never knew we possessed, liberating and delivering us from our pain. Amidst some biblical names for God I find much less helpful, I find the image and name for God as midwife one which resonate with me. One which confirms the value of life, all life, confirms that all of God’s children are precious and blessed. God births us, the Holy Spirit breathes life into us, Jesus came to bring life in all of its abundance. This is an act of midwifery from the God who liberates us from all that would seek to harm us.

A Psalm of Delivery

Deliver me, God

from the cramped quarters

where my spirit sojourns.

Deliver me into a freedom

where I can be myself and grow.

Deliver me from a dependency

on any but You

who are my Creator.

Cut the bonds that force me to feed

on another’s spirituality.

Deliver me into a brand new day

and into a new beginning,

where heart and mind and soul and spirit

can really start anew.

Deliver me into the wide-open arms

of Your Maternal Presence.

Let me cling to the Source

of my sustenance

until I have had my fill.

Deliver me into a world

that has some answers

to the questions

I have not yet dared to ask.

Deliver me into a household of faith

and an inner security.

Your blood is in my veins, God,

Your love is the milk

that sustains me.

Your touch is the feel

of the full ness of faith

when the night falls thick around.

I shall not want,

I shall not fear

for I have been within You.

I know You are near,

I feel You here

at home inside of me.

M.T.Winter, Crossroad Pub. Co., © 1992 Medical Mission Sisters

Hymn: She sits like a bird (Singing the Faith 393)

Reading: Matthew 16:13-20

Reflection

Names are important. In our reading from Exodus we were introduced to two named women, something of a rarity in the bible. Why do we know the names of Shiphrah and Puah but not the Samaritan woman at the well?

Each of us has many different names. Different people know us by different names. Some of us might have nicknames, some of us might prefer to use surnames and titles to those less familiar to us. And of course we’re each known by who we are and what we do. We acquire different titles throughout our life. That might be as simple as ‘Mum’ or ‘Granddad’. They show the rich variations of our lives.

Jesus asks, who do people say I am?’ Actually he firstly asks, who do people say the Son of Man is? It might not surprise you to know, I’m not terribly comfortable with that particular title. I’m trying to reclaim it by thinking of Jesus as the Man of the People; he is the perfect representation of the best of humanity, the perfect one who can demonstrate the potential for living holy lives, who bridges the gap between heaven and earth, between the divine and the human.

The reply from his disciples is varied and we have a long and slightly peculiar list of who Jesus might be. But Peter goes to the top of the class by getting the answer right – you’re the Messiah. John the Baptist, Elijah and Jeremiah are all giants in the history of a faithful people, but Jesus is not simply replicating what went on before. These prophets were good, inspiring, courageous people, who led many others into faith. But they were fixed in time and space. Jesus is dynamic and alive, transcending time and space.

Jesus is still asking, who do you say I am? Who is Jesus for you? A historical figure? A good man who was killed in the end? A person of great moral courage, worthy to be listened to and perhaps even copied? Is that enough? Jesus is seeking to be more than that for us. Because if all Jesus is, is a person from the history books, we cannot have a relationship with him. He can’t affect who we become. In naming Jesus as the Messiah, as God, we are making a claim that he is so much more than a person born over 2000 years ago and did some good stuff. We are making the claim that he remains relevant and alive today because he is God.

Names matter. Names can be destructive – being called ugly or stupid or fat is harmful because these names worm their way into our psyche and affect how we think about ourselves. Jesus calls us by name, and declares we are special and precious and loved. If we call him a prophet rather than God, we are denying he continues to have power and influence and relevance in our lives.

There are many names for God. Earlier we looked at the image of God as midwife. Maybe you don’t find that helpful; maybe you prefer to think of God as Shepherd or Father or something else entirely. Different names draw out different aspects of the nature of God. We cannot know the full character of God; it’s too immense for us. Every title we ascribe God has limitations. But our understanding that God is ultimately mystery shouldn’t stop us from seeking. Who do you say I am? In the encounter Moses first has with God, he asks God that question – who are you? Who should I tell people you are? And God replies, ‘I am who I am.’

Jesus doesn’t need to ask us, who are you? He knows. We are created and known and loved. We are greater than the names others give us, greater than the names or titles we give ourselves. Today, the question we need to hear is Jesus asking, who do you think I am? Who am I to you? Amen.

Hymn: Through all the changing scenes of life (Singing the Faith 638)

 

Prayers of intercession

Holy and gracious God, we pray for others, prayers that bring to mind the world’s realities. Please teach us not to be afraid, because it is here we find you, sharing this deeply troubled world with us.

Please bless all who are continuing to make a difference: scientists working faster than ever before to find cure or vaccine for covid-19; chefs, volunteers, entertainers, neighbours and countless more. May they know your laughter and love.

We ask you to bless all who are there to care for those who are at their lowest, especially in health and care services. May they know your persevering strength.

We pray for the hundreds of thousands who are grieving here and across the world: for the loss of loved ones, loss of livelihood, loss of confidence and hope, loss of any sense of wellbeing. May they know your comfort, strong and everlasting.

We pray for people who need the world to be a more just and equal place, and for those who have power to make changes. May it happen quickly and peacefully. May they know your righteousness.

We pray for all who need the world to remember them: refugees and asylum seekers, all living in poverty and suffering from climate change. May we remember; may they know your provision through us.

Thank you for all, profoundly known and loved, who enrich our lives every day. Amen

(Prayers by Jean Hudson for the Methodist Church)

Hymn: Guide me O Thou Great Jehovah (Singing the Faith 465)

Blessing

Who do we say Jesus is?

How do our lives reflect this?

We go now to live out our faith in word,

in action and in love.

And we go knowing the love of God the Father,

strengthened through know the risen Son

and inspired by the Holy Spirit,

in this place and at this time, always.

©2014 Spill the Beans Resource Team

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