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"Brick by Brick" - Rev. Sarah Walker Cleaveland

Posted on August 23, 2020 by Kathy Miller

Brick by Brick

Prayer of Illumination

Present God,

            Settle our hearts.

                        Still our minds.

                                    And stir our imaginations,

                                                That we might hear your Word for us this day.         Amen.


Brick by Brick

Before I get to this morning’s scripture passage, I want to begin by asking you to cast your mind back three or four weeks, which I know is asking a lot as the days and weeks tend to blend together in this strange pandemic time. But, if you’ll recall, we spent three Sundays reading stories about Jacob, one of the patriarchs of our faith, whose story is told in Genesis, the very first book of the Bible.

Jacob, you may remember, was the one who cheated his twin brother out of his birthright, deceived his father in order to get his blessing, saw a ladder of angels while dreaming and met the God of his ancestors, fell in love with Rachel, was tricked into marrying her sister, Leah, first, and eventually became the father of the 12 tribes of Israel.

When we left Jacob, he had just wrestled with God during the night and received a new name, Israel. After that story, Genesis tells us of Jacob’s reconciliation with his brother, Esau, and then moves to tell the story of Jacob’s children. Now, if you’re a musical theater fan, then you may already be familiar with the most well-known of these stories—that of Joseph and his technicolor dream coat. This is the coat, you may remember, that breaks the camel’s back, so to speak. It was a token of his father’s love and preference, and it pushed his brothers’ jealousy over the edge. Determined to be rid of him, they sell him into slavery to some Egyptians who are traveling through the area, tear his infamous coat, dip it in animal blood, and present it to their father, telling him that his beloved son has been eaten by a wild animal.

The story of Genesis then follows Joseph into Egypt where his ability to interpret dreams allows him to go from being a slave to Pharaoh’s right-hand man, helping Pharaoh to prepare for and survive a famine. It is this famine that ultimately reunites Joseph with his family when his brothers come to Egypt seeking food. And, after a dramatic reconciliation, Joseph’s family moves to Egypt in order to survive the famine. And this is where the book of Genesis ends.

The book of Exodus, from which we’ll read this morning, picks up the narrative in Egypt many generations after Joseph has died when a new Pharaoh rises to power who does not remember Joseph or what he did for Egypt. So, hear now, God’s word to us in this time and place:

Exodus 1:8-2:10

Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.

The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”

Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. 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.

The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him. “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.”

The Word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.


The story of Exodus is a story of liberation and of becoming. It is the story in which the Hebrew people become, slowly and with many hiccups along the way, God’s people. It is a story that begins in slavery and oppression and ends in freedom. And it is a story we still need to hear today.

The story of liberation told in Exodus is not one in which God reaches down and smites the oppressors, nor even one in which God plucks the oppressed up out of their oppression. No, while such a story would make for good reading, and perhaps a more compelling case for belief in God, the story of Exodus tells a story of liberation that is built brick by brick, with more than its fair share of mislaid bricks along the way.

When the story of Exodus begins, Jacob’s descendants have become so numerous that Pharaoh is worried they could topple his kingdom if they ever decided to side with an enemy. And so Pharaoh puts them to work, hoping that by oppressing them, he will quell their growth. When this fails to work, he goes to two midwives, Shiprah and Puah, and instructs them to kill all Hebrew boys when they are born, making the assumption, of course, that girls and women will not threaten his power. (Little does Pharaoh know that it is women and girls who will be the undoing of his kingdom.)

At the same time that Pharaoh gives his orders to the midwives, he also increases the workload required of the Hebrew people so that their situation begins to closely resemble chattel slavery as it was experienced in this country. Yet, despite back-breaking labor and attempts at infant genocide, the Hebrew people continue to multiple. And when called to account for their failure to stem the tide of Jewish boys, the Hebrew midwives lie and use Pharaoh’s own stereotypes and prejudices against him, reminding him that the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women—they are more vigorous, and they give birth without help.

It can be easy to glide past this section of Exodus in order to get to the more exciting bits that begin later on, after all, this is just the prologue. But let’s stop for just a moment to consider the enormity of what these two midwives have done. The text simply says that they did not do as the king commanded, and that when asked about it, they used his own prejudices against him. Two brief sentences, two huge risks.

In his story, The King of Little Things, Bil Lepp[1] reminds us that a lie, no matter how small, is never a little thing. And so it is with acts of resistance. In the face of a power mightier than any we can imagine, these two women refuse to do something they believe is wrong. They live out of their conviction and faith, even in the face of incredible pressure and danger. They don’t martyr themselves for their beliefs by openly defying the king, they simply, and quietly, live their beliefs. As Professor of Religion Lynn Japinga writes, “resistance to oppression often begins in small actions. The Israelites did not have the power to defeat Pharaoh, but the midwives could save the boys … it is easy to be intimidated by slavery, apartheid, and segregation because these systems are so large and tenacious. They effectively demoralize and disempower people until they believe they are powerless, but sometimes when one person challenges the system, other people also refuse to be passive in the face of evil.”[2] Just as the Hebrews’ enslavement and oppression happened slowly over time, with each brick they are forced to make, so too will their liberation be accomplished in small steps over a long period of time.

The next woman to add a brick to the path to freedom is Jochebed, Moses’ mother. In a scene far too reminiscent of scenes that continue to play out on our own borders, a mother is forced to part with her child because of a government edict. Yet Jochebed, too, engages in a small act of civil disobedience. After hiding her son for three months, she enlists the help of her daughter and together they place the young Moses in a basket and float him in the river.

In her song, “Brick by Brick,” singer and songwriter Liz Vice writes that, “one mean and evil heart/one ugly, angry soul/can dash a million hopes for peace … [and that] united we will fall/if we just go along.”[3] The hardest part of any oppressive system, whether it is personal or political, is recognizing and trusting in the power of little things, small actions, quiet words, personal refusals to participate. Whether its slavery or racism, oppression or abuse, it only takes one ugly, angry soul to spew hatred and fear into the world. That which is positive works more quietly, and often unobserved. But it also requires our participation.

One of the things Mr. Rogers is remembered for is his advice to look for the helpers. “When I was a boy and I would see scary things on the news,” Rogers told his young viewers, “my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” It is this role that Pharaoh’s daughter plays in this morning’s drama of resistance. Consider how easy it would have been for Pharaoh’s daughter to simply walk away or even to flip the basket, after all, she has been raised in a household that fears the Hebrews, that worries they will one day rise up against them. But she doesn’t do either of those things. Instead, Pharaoh’s daughter goes against her father’s edict, not just refusing to walk away or drown the Hebrew child she finds in the river, but giving him back to his mother to nurse and then raising him herself within the Pharaoh’s own house. One can only begin to imagine the strain this must have put on the father-daughter relationship.

Three stories of four women and one girl, each of whom chooses to go against a king’s command, to quietly and privately stay true to their own values and their own beliefs.

This world wants us to believe that bigger is always better, that bigger means stronger, more important, more powerful. But our faith insists we look at the world differently. Faith insists we notice that without buttons, our pants fall down, without nails and screws, our buildings fall apart. Faith insists we see the helpers and that we join them. It insists we believe that goodness is stronger than evil, that love is stronger than hate, light stronger than darkness, and life stronger than death. Faith insists we each add our brick to that which is good and right and true, that we believe in goodness, in God, so that our lives might build God’s kingdom here on earth, brick by brick. Amen.


[1] The Cozy Chair. “The King of Little Things.” YouTube video, 13:06. November 16, 2016.

[2] Lynn Japinga, Preaching the Women of the Old Testament: Who They Were and Why They Matter (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), p. 50.

[3] Vice, Liz. "Brick by Brick (Acoustic)." YouTube video, 4:12. December 1, 2018.

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