Updated: Sep 30, 2020
Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 23rd of Eighth Month, 2020
Speaker: Katie Breslin
Scripture: Exodus 1:8-2:10
8 Then, a new king, who knew nothing about Joseph, came to power in Egypt. 9 He said to his people, “These Israelites are so numerous and strong that they are a threat to us. 10 In case of war they might join our enemies in order to fight against us, and might escape from[a] the country. We must find some way to keep them from becoming even more numerous.” 11 So the Egyptians put slave drivers over them to crush their spirits with hard labor. The Israelites built the cities of Pithom
and Rameses to serve as supply centers for the king. 12 But the more the
Egyptians oppressed the Israelites, the more they increased in number and the
farther they spread through the land. The Egyptians came to fear the Israelites
13-14 and made their lives miserable by forcing them into cruel slavery. They
made them work on their building projects and in their fields, and they had no pity
on them.15 Then the king of Egypt spoke to Shiphrah and Puah, the two midwives
who helped the Hebrew women. 16 “When you help the Hebrew women give birth,” he said to them, “kill the baby if it is a boy; but if it is a girl, let it live.”
17 But the midwives were God-fearing and so did not obey the king; instead, they
let the boys live. 18 So the king sent for the midwives and asked them, “Why are
you doing this? Why are you letting the boys live?”19 They answered, “The
Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they give birth easily, and their
babies are born before either of us gets there.” 20-21 Because the midwives
were God-fearing, God was good to them and gave them families of their own.
And the Israelites continued to increase and become strong. 22 Finally the king
issued a command to all his people: “Take every newborn Hebrew boy and throw
him into the Nile, but let all the girls live.”
The Birth of Moses
2:1 During this time a man from the tribe of Levi married a woman of his own tribe,
2 and she bore him a son. When she saw what a fine baby he was, she hid him
for three months. 3 But when she could not hide him any longer, she took a basket
made of reeds and covered it with tar to make it watertight. She put the baby in it
and then placed it in the tall grass at the edge of the river. 4 The baby's sister stood
some distance away to see what would happen to him.5 The king's daughter came
down to the river to bathe, while her servants walked along the bank. Suddenly she
noticed the basket in the tall grass and sent a slave woman to get it. 6 The
princess opened it and saw a baby boy. He was crying, and she felt sorry for him.
“This is one of the Hebrew babies,” she said. 7 Then his sister asked her, “Shall I
go and call a Hebrew woman to nurse the baby for you?” 8 “Please do,” she
answered. So the girl went and brought the baby's own mother. 9 The princess told
the woman, “Take this baby and nurse him for me, and I will pay you.” So she took
the baby and nursed him. 10 Later, when the child was old enough, she took him
to the king's daughter, who adopted him as her own son. She said to herself, “I pulled him out of the water, and so I name him Moses.”[b]
It is great to be with you again this morning. Thank you to Eden for finding that incredible hymn with suffragette roots. It feels very appropriate, given the 100 year anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment, which started the process in allowing women to vote in the United States. Given the Quaker roots in the suffragette movement, I’m sure Alice Paul and the other Quaker women involved would be humored to know that their protest hymn was included in Quaker worship today. We know now that although the words say “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex”, that many women, in particular black and indigenous women, were denied the right to vote even after the 19th amendment was passed, and that voter suppression continues here in the United States. We are still working on the right to vote for all.
It felt appropriate for our message today to come from this passage of the Bible with the history of women's suffrage fresh on our minds. There are so many incredible women, packed into one passage!
The story of Moses is one that I knew well from childhood because there was a popular movie that came out called The Prince of Egypt. I must have seen this movie a thousand times. I loved the music, the animation, it was one of my favorites. Most of my Bible education came from sources like Veggie Tales and movies like the Prince of Egypt, which might be appropriate for children but aren’t always known for being accurate to the retelling of the stories. As a first year seminary student in Hebrew Bible, I was excited to get to the story of Moses because I could revisit one of my favorite childhood movies with new eyes.
After I read Exodus for the first time, I joined some of my fellow seminary friends for a viewing of what was, in my mind, a critical masterpiece. But the movie didn’t hold up completely to my childhood memory, and what was most disappointing to me was --- that they didn’t include the midwives! I came into Nancy Bowen’s Hebrew Bible class and it was like she read my mind. When I mentioned that we had watched the Prince of Egypt over the weekend, she looked at me and said, “WHY DIDN’T THEY INCLUDE THE MIDWIVES!” She’s right. This is why the book is always better than the movie.
And for a passage that starts with lost history, “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.”, it seemed ironic that I didn’t know about this incredible act of resistance. And for me, what made this story so significant was the way the midwives resisted Pharaoh. It wasn’t with a protest sign or a letter to Congress, like many of us have done in the last few months. It was within their gifts. Their roles gave them the power to change history because of who they were and their position in history.
From my time at FCNL I learned that resistance is not just one act by an individual. It is the collective action of multiple people, standing up against the status quo, in many different ways. That’s why it is significant that this passage also includes the actions of Moses’s mother to hide Moses and then place him in a basket and send him down the river, in hopes of saving him. And Pharaoh's daughter for taking him out of the river and saving him from the fate so many other babies faced. If it hadn’t been for Shiphrah and Puah, for Moses’ mother or for Pharaoh's daughter, history would have been significantly different. Each woman played their small role in resistance.
Throughout Exodus Moses comes to face the question of identity. Moses was born of the Hebrew people but taken care of by Pharaoh and having the benefits of being with Pharaoh’s family. Although Pharaoh may have forgotten the impact of Joseph’s dreams, those dreams still lead to Moses’s place of birth. In Moses’s journey after this passage, he learns the power of knowing who you are in order to bring God’s kingdom to earth.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of knowing who you are. And also I’ve been thinking a lot about this meeting, mostly because the Meeting survey is on my to do list and...I keep getting half way through it and not completing it. But in preparing for this sermon, I also started to think about the history of our meeting. I’m a relatively new member here, even if I’ve already served on two committees. And every once in a while, someone will mention a member of this meeting from the past with such love and admiration that I wish I knew them. In many ways I’m still trying to figure out who West Richmond is.
Like Moses, if we are seeking to know who we are, we should probably know some of the people who made us who we are today. (Perhaps this is a big message to get you to take the life of the meeting evaluation survey, so you’re welcome M & M and the Meetings Evaluation Group.) I’d like to take us on a journey of who we have been, through the eyes of people who made our meeting what it is today. Stephanie made the mistake of sending me an encouraging text message on Friday afternoon about this message and got roped into some storytelling about the meetings history. I’m grateful for her willingness to share what she remembered. I was particularly interested in the women who were part of this meeting, and she appropriately told me to call Louise Beede, who I’m grateful was able to provide an even more historic background of this meeting. Thank you, Louise, for your memory and willingness to share. And thank you to Betsy for giving even more historical details during our facing bench meeting. I’m grateful for all of the people who have helped me bring this message to you today.
One of the first women Louise told me about was Mahalah Jay. Mahalah was one of the first graduates from Antioch College and moved here to teach at Earlham in 1867. She was on the committee that helped draft the Richmond Declaration and was the first executive secretary of the American Friends Board on foreign missions. It was established in 1892, and later became the 5 Years Meeting, as it was called then, or Friends United Meeting now. Betsy said that her impression from reading her letters was that she was particularly encouraging of young women to become missionary and teachers. Mahalah was one of the founding members of our meeting in 1909. Our meeting started with her energy in our bones.
As Louise told me each of these stories, I realized that our meeting has always had a history of involvement in missions beyond Richmond, Indiana. She told me about incredible women like Alice Shaffer and Mildred White, two women with international service who found their home here in Richmond later in life. Alice Shaffer graduated from Earlham in 1928 and then she began her work as a social worker at Hull House, an early settlement house for arriving European immigrants, and then went on to work for the American Friends Service Committee and then UNIFA in Guatemala and Brazil. She retired here to Richmond. Mildred White, who is well known to both Lois and Ed, spent her working year in Ramallah Friends School, from 1922 and 1954, where she served as a teacher and girls principal. She moved to Friends Fellowship in her later years and attended West Richmond Friends.
Many of these women were involved beyond Richmond, but in knowing the meeting, I wanted to know more about how women contributed to the meeting itself.
Given my background at FCNL, I was particularly excited to learn about Helen Fuson, who was an MD, though she never had a practice. Helen and her husband, William, were traveling Friends for FCNL for a year after they retired from Earlham in the early days of FCNL. Louise said that Helen was always at the forefront of social action with a particular interest in racial justice. She was involved in the food pantry, a ministry we continue today. She collected clothing for the AFSC clothing drives. Helen would go down to the local YMCA to give exams for low-income children who needed them for school. She was both involved in the meeting and in the community.
Nancy Booster was another one of these incredible women who was heavily involved with the United Society of Friends Women, serving on the board for many years, and was also very involved in Indiana Yearly Meeting. Louise said she was one of those people when you served on a committee with her, she was like the Rock of Gibraltar. I could see why Nancy was the first woman clerk of the Meeting. She also taught Sunday School and she was one of the Building Committee that was part of building the addition to the front of West Richmond Friends. Nancy helped change the foundation of the Meeting.
Both Eleanor Robinson and Esther Nusbaum were involved with Team Ministry during their time here at West Richmond. Eleanor graduated from Earlham in the ’30s and coached hockey at Earlham, earning herself a place in the Earlham Athletes Hall of Fame. Louise said she was a wonderful neighbor and friend. Esther Nusbaum was a local artist whose paintings can still be found in the meetinghouse fellowship room. Louise said she was a spiritual leader in the meeting who she often looked up to.
Speaking with Louise reminded me that she had elders in her time, like I do today. She mentioned how happy she was when her children were present when Ruth Anna Simms, a woman who attended Meeting faithfully into her 90s, gave vocal ministry in open worship. Her messages were often about searching for the truth. Louise remarked how powerful it was to hear someone in her age still seeking.
Stephanie also told me about another Ruth Simms, (not to be confused with Ruth Anna Simms, who was her neighbor,) was an incredible gardener and a unique dresser. She ran a clothing room at the Meetinghouse and she and her husband helped with the gardening outside of West Richmond Friends. Stephanie remembered her fondly for her humble nature and interesting personality.
These women are not lost to time, even if I didn’t know their names. We can still see them, in our fellowship hall, in our garden and in our social missions. This passage reminded me that resistance comes in multiple different forms. It could be in activism, or truth seeking or radical friendship. It could come from training, like Helen’s training as an MD, or from a love of the mission, like Mildred’s love for her work in Ramallah.
Just because Pharaoh didn’t know Joseph doesn’t mean that the people of Israel were not impacted by him and what he did. We should remember the gifts that others have given us through their lives and their service. Many of these women helped build the foundation for the Meeting we have today. I shared the ways that the women of this meeting in the past were strong and contributed to this meeting, but they were not without their flaws.The beauty of foundation is that when your foundation is strong, you can always grow on top of it, beyond it. That means we as Friends cannot dismiss the parts of our history that are messy. The ways that we were misguided, the ways that we were wrong and, more importantly, the ways that we were human.
This focus on resistance in this sermon made me pause and consider what resistance looks like today. For many of the women of our history it was about starting something new, or speaking out against war, or providing care when it is absent, or societal sexism. Our resistance today may look different, even though some of those themes may still be present. Most notably the word resistance recently has been used to refer to the white house but it is not exclusively that. Resistance to me is working against the ways that our society forces us to accept injustice. It is an act of radical love. Our resistance today can be looking at our norms to see how we center white culture instead of multiracial culture. Or seeing how we can be accomplice, not just bystanders, to the work of justice. There is so much work that needs to be done, and thankfully, there are those who started the work before us for us to continue. Continuing to learn and grow is an important part of resistance. And knowing our history is part of this necessary work.
It is such a gift to know who we are. And it is a gift to have such a history in this meeting.
Friends, let us remember these women in this Bible passage and those who came before us who helped shape who we are. Let us continue to move towards a meeting in line with God’s vision for us on earth. And don’t forget to fill out your survey. Thank you Friends.
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