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"A Long Labor," by Claire Helton

Exodus 14:19-31

Then the angel of God, who was leading the Israelites, moved to their rear—the pillar of cloud left the front of their number and took up position behind them, between the Israelites and the Egyptians. All during the night the cloud provided light to one side and darkness to the other side, so that there was no contact between them.

Then Moses stretched his hand over the sea, and YHWH swept the sea with a strong east wind throughout the night and so turned it into dry land. When the water was thus divided, the Israelites marched into the midst of the sea on dry land, with the water walled up on their right and on their left. The Egyptians followed in pursuit; all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and charioteers went after them into the midst of the sea.

At dawn, YHWH looked down upon the Egyptian forces from the column of fiery cloud, and threw the army into confusion and panic, clogging their chariot wheels so that they could hardly turn. The Egyptians turned to flee from the Israelites, saying ”Their God fights for them against us!” Then YHWH told Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, and let the water flow back upon the Egyptians, over their chariots and their charioteers.”

So at sunrise, Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the waters rolled back in. As the Egyptians fled, YHWH hurled them into its midst. As the water flowed back, covering the chariots and the charioteers—Pharaoh’s whole army, who had followed the Israelites into the sea—not one of them survived. But the Israelites passed through, walking dry-shod in the sea, with the water like a wall, on their right and on their left.

Thus YHWH saved Israel on that day from the power of Egypt. When Israel saw the Egyptians lying dead on the seashore and beheld the great power that YHWH had shown against them, the people held YHWH in awe; and put their faith in YHWH and in Moses, God’s trusted servant.


This is one of our sacred stories.

Thanks be to God.



Sermon

The desert winds were kicking up dust outside the camp as day turned to dusk, making it difficult to breathe, but inside the birthing tent, two midwives of Israel breathed deep and long as the younger of them, Yara, labored toward the birth of her own first child. On any other night – and if they hadn’t both been midwives – there might have been more commotion around them, more hands to help, but on this night, they found themselves alone; even the surrounding tents were quiet, deserted. In the pauses between contractions they could hear the faint sounds of the celebration beginning to echo across the sands from the other end of the camp, though they paid less attention to them as those pauses grew shorter and the contractions came closer together. There, in the camp of Israel, on this night at sundown, the people of God marked the first remembrance of the Passover, the day of their liberation from the grips of the Pharaoh, one year ago. On this first anniversary, the people of Israel were in many ways much like a one-year-old child, still learning how to pull themselves together enough to find stability and walk in one direction at the same time, a task that would take them into their 40s before they would really get it down. But they were ready to mark the day all the same, and the heights of their jubilation evidenced the weight of the oppression they could still remember in vivid detail, the weight that had been cast off. As a wave of song carried toward them on the wind, Yara turned to her friend and sighed, “Oh, Sarah, I’m sorry–" beginning to offer an apology for her timing, that her labor had kept them from joining the celebration, but her voice seized up before she could finish and became instead a low groaning as she closed her eyes and waited for the contraction to pass. When she opened her eyes she saw Sarah looking deeply into her own. “Don’t worry yourself, dear one,” she said, bringing a wet rag to Yara’s forehead. “God has delivered our people, now let’s get you delivered.” They both smiled at one another with a knowing look; this wasn’t the first time that pun had been repeated on this day. And yet, Yara did feel deeply the significance of her child sharing a birthday with this day that marked the birth of her people as a nation unto themselves. It was a significance with many layers to it, for Yara. She was a sensitive soul; though her friends and family had all joined in the dancing when they had reached the shore that fateful day one year ago, Yara had sat by herself a few paces away, toes in the sand, feeling the surf wash over her feet and staring blankly out at the sea, almost numb. She had watched the waters dance gracefully up to the shoreline and thought how deceptive they were, how much pain and death was hidden underneath the lively waves. Perhaps it was because as a very young child, she had played with an Egyptian boy whose mother employed her own mother; she would never know for certain whether he was in the mass of soldiers who had perished that day, but she would wonder until the day she died. And she would never understand the dancing. It was in her mind a great irony, or a great coincidence, that this day that marked the new life of her people that came at such a high cost would now mark the new life of her child that came at the cost of this intense and unrelenting pain. As Yara’s next contraction dissipated, Sarah thought she could hear footsteps approaching, and then became sure of it as she heard humming along with them, the song of the people coming to find them. She knew that voice. She lifted the curtain to allow Miriam to enter and was glad that she did, finding that Miriam brought with her not just encouragement and a song but a large basket resting on one hip; it looked to be heavy, with herbs poking out on one side. “I heard we might have two playing hooky. How are things progressing, friends?” she asked. The look on Yara’s face was hard to make out. In truth, she was stunned to see Miriam; she felt she was in the presence of royalty. Yara had never met Miriam in person but had admired her from a distance, not just in the last year since the great exodus but as far back as she could remember. In many ways, Miriam had been a role model for her – the reason she became a midwife. Of course, Miriam didn’t start out as a midwife – but she got an earlier start than most. Long before Moses himself came into his role as the liberator of his people, while he was still tucked away, growing up in the palace, the whispers had begun to circulate among the Hebrews about the bravery of this young girl and her mother. Miriam had watched over her infant brother as he floated in the reeds, and had acted shrewdly when he was found to secure his wellbeing, convincing the Pharaoh’s daughter not only to take him in but to allow his own mother to act as a wet nurse, unbeknownst to her. Miriam and her mother spent those early years instilling in the child Moses the songs and stories of their people, the call and response of their Hebrew traditions, so that one day when Moses heard the call of God, he would also hear the response resounding deep inside him, echoing within his heart across the years. And in the meantime, Miriam had a life to live. Though she was brave, she had been wounded by the trauma of watching a despotic ruler crush her people and slaughter their children. And she had done what many wounded, wise people do. She had found the place where her wounds intersected with her passions and gifts, and leaned in. Miriam had a deep anger toward the Pharaoh, and a knack for observation. After watching the way the midwives Puah and Shiphrah had used their position subversively, she began following them around. Eventually, she was old enough to assist in a few births, and by the time she came of age she was a sought-after midwife in her own right. She was also an outspoken critic of Egyptian rule and an agitator working to empower her people however she could within the confines of their oppression. And then the day came; those confines were shattered. The people had been set free, the waters were parted, and Israel had found new life across the sea. And here they were, tonight, celebrating that freedom with Miriam’s brothers Moses and Aaron at center stage, and as Yara considered it, her jaw dropped open further, until Miriam set down her basket, walked over, and took her hand just in time to offer a counter-squeeze all through the next contraction. “Breathe, my friend; yes, groan,” she murmured, “that’s good.” When it was over, Miriam clapped her hands together and declared, “Well, sisters, though you are occupied this evening, still, the celebration comes to you.” She lifted the lid of her basket and began unpacking the contents: a platter holding a roasted shank bone, herbs, a few bowls, the contents of which Yara could not see, and some unleavened bread. The thought of most of it made Yara’s stomach turn, but the thought of missing out entirely on this sacred day with its newly established rituals was equally appalling, and so she smiled weakly and offered thanks. “Don’t worry, friend,” Miriam said, “the lamb is just for Sarah – unless you want it.” She had a conspiratorial air about her as she arranged the elements on the platter and pulled a table over next to the birthing stones so that Yara would be able to see even when she did not partake. The next contraction was blessedly short. And then: “My sisters,” Miriam began, “Our people were slaves in Egypt—” Sarah interrupted, “I’m sorry, Miriam, but before you get too far into this, won’t you be missed at the festival?” A twinkle in Miriam’s eye let her know she was not offended by the interruption. “Ah, they can do without me for half an hour. It will take them at least that long to get through the genealogies.” Then she grew a bit more reflective. “There is no place I’d rather be to celebrate the birth of our people than here beside these birthing stones. This is where the mystery of life itself is most palpable…within reach. And,” she turned to Yara, “the labor you are engaged in now is, I think, a more potent symbol of our journey than even these,” she gestured toward the platter, “that we will share tonight. These symbols remind us of what we felt; this symbol you are enacting right now reminds me of what it took to give life to our liberation.” Then she paused, took a breath, and started in again, “Our people were slaves in Egypt.” Miriam used the next contraction to gather the bitter herbs, salt water, and charoset that would symbolize the suffering their people had endured. It was a delicate dance these women performed, tending to one another in both body and soul. A less sensitive soul than Yara might have been irritated at the intrusion, but she longed to plumb the depths of this sacred day, to find the meaning in the suffering that had seemed to elude her for a year now. After Sarah had dipped the herbs in the salty water and placed them on her own tongue, she extended some to Yara, who had finally relaxed after that last, and more intense, contraction. “Bitter herbs,” Miriam declared, “for the bitter weight we bore; mingled with the salty water of our sweat and our tears.” Then she used her other hand to pick up the wet rag and wipe the actual sweat from Yara’s brow before moving on. Taking a piece of the bread, she used it to scoop up some of the sticky charoset mixture of fruit and nuts and offered it to the others. “The mortar that held together the work of our hands, the bricks we were forced to make, and to lay.” They each began to chew. “And the bread,” she continued, quieter now, as she allowed herself not just to recite, but to remember, “unleavened bread, for our people were slaves in Egypt, but our God brought us out. And when the time came, we knew that there was no time for bread to rise – much as you, dear, though you prepared for this day, could not know when it would come, and there was no time to delay.” Finally, Miriam turned to the lamb and at this, Yara turned her head aside. Not only could she not stomach the food itself right now, but they had reached the symbol in the story that held the deepest and most troubling weight for her, even though it was meant as redemption. Here she was, laboring in this room with her firstborn, not knowing whether it was a son or a daughter. The heaviness of this symbol of the lamb’s bone, representing the blood of the lamb marking each Israelite doorpost on that dark Passover night, the blood that would spare their firstborn sons from the tragic fate of all the families of Egypt, was too much for her to bear. She focused, instead, on her breathing, and tried to gauge whether Miriam would understand if she voiced what was troubling her. As Miriam returned the platter to the table, she looked long at Yara, holding her hand through one more contraction, and said, “This is sacred, friends. You are doing the work of life, just as the Ruah, the Spirit of God, labors in and through us. Breathe that in.” And then she turned to begin packing her things. “Wait,” Yara called, afraid she was going to miss this chance to voice the questions that haunted her. “Miriam, you have been with Moses. Moses has been with God. There is one part of our story I have spent all these months lamenting – mourning – groaning even as I groan tonight.” Miriam turned and waited patiently as the next labor pain came along, as if on cue. When she could speak again, Yara asked, “Why did they have to drown? Why did their children have to die?” Miriam let her eyes drift to the ground; she knew Yara spoke of the Egyptian soldiers who had followed them into the sea and been swept away, of the Egyptian families who had not marked their doors with the blood of a lamb. Yara spoke again, “Or maybe they didn’t ‘have to,’ maybe it just happened, but the question that keeps me up at night is: Why did we celebrate? How could we sing for joy when God’s creatures were dying?” Miriam sighed deeply. She herself had led in the celebration when they reached the far shore of the sea; and for good reason – there was much, indeed, to celebrate. But the words she had sung were words that would echo down through the generations: “Horse and rider God has flung into the sea!” Words of triumph, though they seemed callous now, in the light of Yara’s inquiry. Miriam, herself, was implicated in this question Yara asked. As a midwife, the irony had not escaped Miriam either: the path through the sea that had been almost a birth canal for her people, providing safe passage toward freedom and new life had been a death trap leading to tragedy and suffering for those who had attempted to follow them. In that moment, Miriam made the decision to face the question honestly. “I was angry,” she confessed. “I believe I was right to be angry. You, Yara, were told from your youngest days the story of the Pharaoh’s decree, his cold heart, how in the years before you were born, he murdered our sons and cast them into the waters. But you did not see it with your own eyes. I do not expect you to feel what I feel. But I want you to know. Our people went into labor the day the Pharaoh first issued that decree. We waited long years through ever-tightening contractions, learning to breathe together, to hold one another up through the pains as they came. In these next moments, Yara, you will feel compelled to push – but it will be too soon, and you will need to hold back. Our people, dear one, held back and endured as long as they could. But when the day came that we were born anew through those waters, we did not leave our suffering behind; we carried it with us, even in our songs of joy. I thank God that you carry a little less anger than I do, and a little more compassion; I pray that your child might bear an even lighter load.” Yara had been listening as she bit down on a folded piece of cloth; Miriam did not know how timely her words were, for the urge to push was beginning to overwhelm her. The time was imminent. As Sarah moved to prepare for the birth, Yara panted out her hope for her people, her hope for her child: “Somewhere along the way,” she breathed, “we will have to break the cycle,” she breathed again, “of reacting to how we’ve been hurt.” She bit down again and closed her eyes. In the dark behind her closed lids she was back on the pitch black sea floor, holding the hands of her people, feeling her way through the darkest hours of the night toward a freedom they could not yet see. With the nimbleness and skill of three midwives in a birthing room, the dance culminated: there was pushing, there was breathing, there was new life. As Yara held her newborn son and wrapped in swaddling clothes, she breathed, “Yairus, he will be called. One who spreads light.” She clutched him to her chest and whispered in his ear, “One day, child of light, when the night is darkest, may you too birth something beautiful and liberating and whole-making into this world. You will never be fully free of the suffering that has shaped us, you will never escape the impulse to divide us from them, to justify violence, to dehumanize and distance yourself from your enemy, but you do have agency about what you will do, how you will work to spread light, rather than darkness.” Miriam took Yara’s free hand in her own and with her other hand, brushed the child’s cheek with her thumb. “Sisters,” she began, “and little brother,” she interjected, “this is what the Spirit is birthing in the world, with groans too deep for words, and it is a long labor. May we never cease in the work of discerning when to patiently endure the labor pains while they come, and when it is time to push toward liberation. Welcome, little one.” Northminster, may we find ourselves in the story, and have eyes to see the story in ourselves. Amen.



Invitation to Respond

On paper, or with someone in the room, reflect on the following questions:

  • Where do you see your story intersecting with a story of laboring toward liberation?

  • Who are the “others” in your life that you are prone to dehumanize? What would it take to break that cycle?

  • Have you found the place where your wounds intersect with your passion?

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