Sunday, April 16, 2023
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“Emergency Circumcision”
By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, April 16, 2023
Reading: Exodus 4:24-26


I read an article about a newly married couple. They had left the religion of their families behind, convinced they would have a better life without it. When they had their first child, the formerly Muslim husband asked his formerly Jewish wife, “we’ll bury the cord and placenta, of course, right?” She looked at him like he’d grown a second head.

That’s a common practice in Islam, to bury those precious means of life. So, every Muslim walks around knowing part of them is already in the ground. I’m jealous. Our techie age wants to store the cord for stem cells. Our body-averse age mostly sees such things as gross, medical waste. But our Muslim neighbours see them as intimately connected to who we are—and so worthy of a dignified burial.

The husband didn’t realize this is an Islamic practice. He thought all right-thinking people did it. As the wife thought about it, she came to like the idea. See, it’s very difficult to leave faith behind altogether. Because eventually you want to get married. Or feel called to some course of action. Or have a child. Or someone gets sick. Or you want to sing a song older than yourself. And eventually we die. What do those transitions mean? And do you really expect to make better meaning out of them than faith communities already have for millennia?

We’re starting a new sermon series today on texts we normally ignore. We preachers usually want something uplifting. So do you churchgoers. So do non-churchgoers. But not everything in our scripture is that way. We usually ignore those bits. In this series, we’re diving right in without a life jacket. It’s good to sit with a text and not know what it means. Or to know what it means and not like it. Sometimes you have to love a biblical text not as a friend, but as an enemy. And often you don’t put a Bible verse in needlepoint or on a cat poster, sometimes you blush when your grandchild finds it in the family Bible. And that’s all okay. We don’t worship the Bible. We worship God. The Bible is God’s gift, but it is far from clear, or always edifying. In fact, a proper engagement with the Bible might leave us more baffled than before. Because it’s about God. Who has ever figured out God?!

Take the story you heard earlier. It’s an emergency circumcision. Hard to imagine circumcision needing to happen on the double quick, but there it is. In Exodus, God has already summoned Moses to be his mouthpiece to Pharaoh. Moses has objected. They argue, God’s relents a little: take Aaron. Moses leaves Midian, where he’s been in exile, and off he goes. He has Zipporah, his Midianite wife, and Gershom, their son, with him.

And he’s jumped in the middle of the night. Exodus says, “the Lord met him and tried to kill him” (4:24). Not very nice of God, is it? But this is not unprecedented. There are other stories of a hero of faith being jumped in the night. Jacob sleeps by the River Jabbok and is attacked, wrestles till daybreak, wins, but the attacker (maybe an angel?) puts his hip out of joint. Jacob is a wounded patriarch for the rest of his life. Or if you prefer your mythology from a galaxy far, far away: Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back sees a cave on Dagobah. It’s cold and frightening. Yoda tells him to go in without his weapons. Luke takes the weapons and goes. And his worst fear is there: Darth Vader. They fight. Luke wins, but it turns out under that terrible mask is Luke’s own face. He has faced his worst fear, and succeeded, but failed in the success. His greatest enemy is himself. There is something to coming of age that involves facing fear, death, and realizing part of us is already in the ground. Living with a blessed limp.

Moses has married well—and that saves his life. His wife Zipporah might be from a foreign people, a different religion, but she knows the right thing to do in a crisis. She finds a sharp flint, turns out to be handy with a blade, and so circumcises him—which him? Moses? Gershom? It’s not clear—all indefinite pronouns. Zipporah touches his feet with the bloody foreskin and says, “truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me.” And God leaves them be. Now that’s a lot of action in three short verses and not a lot of clarity. But let’s see if we can wrestle a blessing out of this story.

First, Moses has a pattern of being saved by clever, faithful women. Moses would never have gotten born had the Hebrew midwives not defied Pharaoh and refused to kill newborns. Then Moses’ mother sets him afloat in the Nile and his sister accompanies him to Pharaoh’s daughter: salvation by three more brave women defying Pharaoh. And here on his way to face Pharaoh, Moses’ wife saves him from God. That’s six saving women in four chapters of Exodus. Some use lies, some use the Nile, this one uses a sharp rock. Exodus is a girl power book. And in the Bible, sometimes the saviour needs saving. Without these brave women there’d be no Exodus, no freedom from slavery. Just forced labour and death. Just like without Mary, there’d be no Jesus. Funny, some say women shouldn’t lead or speak in church. We would have no faith at all without these women and countless others. No Moses without Zipporah, Miriam, Shiphrah, Puah, and many without names we know.

I’m building this sermon with help from a scholar named Carmen Imes from Biola University in California. She comes from a tradition that doesn’t ordain women. But she read her Bible in Hebrew and said, hmm, looks like we have no faith, no Bible, no God without women leading. I’m with the sisters in scripture. And now she’s teaching a new generation of evangelicals a way out of misogyny—by reading the Bible better.

Back in Genesis, God told Abraham he would make a sign in his flesh. Abraham will be a father of multitudes, kings shall come from him, and God will bless the whole world through him. The sign? Circumcision—cutting off the foreskin. I always imagine Abraham saying, ‘covenant? Sounds great… You wanna cut my what?’ They call this the bris in Judaism, short for covenant, berit, and it’s so important it has to happen on the 8th day of a boy’s life, even if that day is a sabbath or Yom Kippur, when no one is supposed to work (unless the child isn’t healthy enough—then it can be delayed). Anyone not circumcised will be “cut off” from Israel—pun very much intended. This has nothing to do with any medical rationale. It is only practiced on boys—any so-called female circumcision, is really genital mutilation—and has no place in God’s story. And remember Abraham is so far childless. God is wounding the male part that makes for procreation. Women’s procreation is normally bloody: once a month, and then also in childbirth. In Israel, the male procreative organ is now also bloodied. There is no life without wounding.

But Moses has forgotten all this. He is, uncircumcised, or else his son Gershom is, either way, they should be cut off from Israel. And who is Moses really? Raised in Pharaoh’s palace. Egyptian name. When Zipporah first meets him, she says he’s an Egyptian. Well, which is it Moses, are you Egyptian, as you appear to be, or are you a Hebrew? I mean, Moses, you’re not even circumcised! Israel only has only one law at this point. Circumcision. No ten commandments. No 603 other laws. Just one. And Moses hasn’t done it. As the memes say, you had one job. In Exodus we’re told only those circumcised can eat the Passover. Only those cut into the covenant go free across the sea. Moses can’t exactly lead only the circumcised out of slavery if he’s not, can he? So, it’s now or never, Moses. As the union movement likes to sing to workers and management alike, which side are you on? As evangelists like to ask, are you with Jesus or not? Moses, are you with us or with the Pharaoh and his enslavers?

Now, Moses’ uncertain identity may be less surprising than it seems. Religious practices do grow cold. Kids go off to university. Many of us got out of the practice of going to church during COVID. One family that came back last week for Easter said friends phoned and invited them back—it might be as simple as that (please don’t jump your friends in the middle of the night like God does). Israel actually loses chunks of the Bible for a time, rediscovers them, and redevotes herself to their practice (Nehemiah Chapter 8). I pray every day for revival at our church. That we would all relearn practices of prayer, Bible study, love of neighbour, service of the poor. Israel seems to have forgotten God at times. We do too. But God can’t have that from Moses. If Moses is going to lead in Israel, he first must obey, be cut in, be part of Israel.

In the early church, the great city of Milan was without a bishop. There was a young professional well-liked in the city, named Ambrose, who came to church a lot. One lay leader pointed to him and said, “Ambrose, bishop!” Another took up the cry, then the whole church did. The only problem: Ambrose wasn’t even baptized. Can’t have a bishop unbaptized any more than Israel’s liberator be uncircumcised. So, they baptized Ambrose the next day. Ordained him the day after. And made him a bishop the day after that. Each of those normally took years of preparation. When God calls, time gets weird. Sometimes couples begin their life together and only have a church wedding later. Sometimes folks live faithfully without baptism for decades. Things come in surprising order and speed. A young Martin Luther King Jr. attended a meeting of church leaders in Montgomery, tired after a long day, wishing he could go home instead. But a new movement against segregation needed a leader. One woman pointed to King and suggested him. Another woman amen'd. King walked in a pastor of a struggling little congregation. Walked out leader of a movement that changed the world. Brave women made a faithful leader, not the other way around.

Now this is what I love. Zipporah is not a daughter of Sarah. She is no Israelite. She is a Midianite, daughter of a Midianite priest. Moses may have forgotten how to be an Israelite in Egypt, but this foreigner from another faith has not forgotten what makes Israel, Israel. Midianites are descended from Abraham but not from Sarah, they’re sort of kin, sort of enemies. And being a priest’s daughter, Zipporah knows exactly what to do when God throws a tantrum. She gets busy cutting. I don’t know about you, but when I hear a sound in the night, I can’t even remember who I am. Zipporah hears an attack from God, and knows exactly what to do, she cuts, speaks, touches, speaks again, and the saviour is saved. When God first comes for Moses, Moses objects and whines for two chapters. When God comes for Zipporah’s family, she leaps into action and does what Moses could not or did not do. Sometimes outsiders are more faithful than insiders. They remember God’s word better than we do. They might even cut it into our flesh for us.

It makes me wonder: who do we love from another faith who might drive us deeper into our own?

Very early on in Israel, circumcision becomes a metaphor for cutting away sin, disciplining male sexuality, removing what’s harmful from life. Deuteronomy 10:16 says this: “Circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and don’t be stubborn any longer.” Cut away what’s harmful. Leave what is holy. Faith isn’t always easy or pleasant. It can be a bloody affair. And I think we should brag about this. I mean, seems to me most Torontonians like something painful that marks their identity. I’m struck by the creative piercings and tattoos I see around town. Each one tells a story about a person. They invite you to ask—nobody takes offense at that. Circumcision tells a story about God. ‘Yeah, we know its weird, but Abraham did it, and every Jewish male since.’ We Christians don’t have to do it. We’re not Jews. We become part of Abraham’s family by faith, not this ritual. For us—baptism is our circumcision. And it’s not always painless. Churches that baptize only adults tell me they try to hold someone down a little longer than is comfortable. That’s the death of the old person, and the resurrection of a whole new person. In some cultures, baptism can mean your family disowns you. There is a cave we have to explore, like Luke Skywalker. There is a dangerous face of God, an attack in the night, a fear we must face. I just hope we all have a clever woman like Zipporah around when it happens.

Here’s what else. Moses and his family are jumped in the night by God who seeks to kill him. Who else is that about to happen to? Pharaoh and his family. And all Egypt. How will the Israelites avert death? With blood, a lamb’s in their case, smeared on their doorposts. Zipporah touches feet with blood, the Hebrew for this touch is nagah. Israel will touch doorposts with blood. The Hebrew is again nagah. Zipporah offers a Passover in advance, a staving off death by blood for Moses’ family before it will happen for all Israel. God will see the blood, pass over them, and the Egyptians’ firstborn will die. It’s a severe story. But it liberates slaves, dethrones tyrants, and shows God is forever on the side of the oppressed. What Moses is about to inflict on Egypt, he first faces with his own family. Someone wise said you only love God as much as you love your worst enemy. Ouch. Centuries later, some Egyptians come under the protection of that saving blood. The Coptic Church in Egypt dates from the earliest apostles. There are half a dozen Coptic congregations here in the GTA. Their churches in Egypt are often attacked. And they forgive their attackers. That’s serious, bloody faith.

But what of this “bridegroom of blood” business? It’s repeated twice in the story in three short verses: “You have become a bridegroom of blood,” Zipporah says. A kinsman by marriage. There may have been a time in Israel’s history when boys were not circumcised in infancy but  right before marriage they became bridegrooms of blood. Abraham was circumcised as an adult. Jewish converts today are too (with anesthetic). Many cultures practice circumcision, not just Israel. Muslims do, ancient Egyptians had a version of it, lots of African tribes do. Nelson Mandela spoke of it as a coming-of-age ritual, he remembered the pain, but also the joy, that he was now a man. A bridegroom of blood would be in pain on a wedding night. Like brides sometimes are. Marriage, sexuality, make for life. They’re dangerous too. Our broader culture thinks sex is for fun or self-expression. No. Sex is there to make two people one, and sometimes also to make new people. That’s joyful, but it’s also risky. Women tend to know that sex is risky. In Israel, bridegrooms of blood know it too. Remember, Exodus is a girl power book, and a male-humbling one.

Christians can be at our worst when we get judgy about sex. But I think we’re wise to say that sex should come with deep commitment, marriage, and openness to new life. So, a friend suggests this: don’t couple up with anybody you haven’t already merged bank accounts with. That somehow sounds more vulnerable than nakedness, more dangerous than childbirth. Good things are costly.

Christians should know nothing good comes without cost. We celebrated holy week last week. Carried a cross all over Forest Hill. Dropped nails with a plunk into a bucket up here. Meditated on Jesus’ sacrifice. To follow Jesus means a kind of death. A cutting away. And it can be harsh. You know that strange verse about how a camel will get through the eye of a needle before a rich person gets into the kingdom of God? Someone wise said you can get a camel through the eye of a needle. It’s just going to be awfully hard on the camel. Jesus will indeed save your life, but first, he’ll make you crazy. Give up your possessions? Hate your family? Turn the other cheek? Love those who persecute you. This is insane! Yeah. But it’s a sane insanity, and the only way to life. A teacher of mine says that folks turn to Jesus thinking he’ll solve their problems. No. Following Jesus means you inherit all sorts of problems you didn’t know you had, and wouldn’t have otherwise. Like caring about your sister and brother Christians around the world, like the Coptic Church. And siblings of other faiths. And the poor. You can’t just say, “not my problem.” They’re kin. They’re Jesus. We’re commanded to love. See? Hard on the camel. A terrifying attack in the night. A God who only saves by blood.

Think with me back on Exodus that we’ve been preaching this year. God is the one who brings a way out of no way, as the black church says. First this happens for Moses. As a Hebrew boy, he should be dead. But he’s saved by women: the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, his mother, his sister Miriam, Zipporah. We have no faith without brave, quick-thinking, Pharaoh-defying women. Then Moses comes to Pharaoh and demands, “let my people go.” Which people, Moses? Egypt? ‘No. Israel. I might’ve been raised in your house, Pharaoh, but I am not your son. I am Abraham’s son.’ Moses brings liberation for all Israel that the women first bring for him. It’s not pretty or clean. It’s bloody and dangerous. Like getting born. Or getting born again.

In our story, God is like this fierce, protective foreign woman, married to Moses, quick thinking, holding off a deadly assault, with a flash of flint. God is also visible in this sign in human flesh, going back to Abraham, forward to every son of Israel today. God is also in the provision of blood that makes for life, in Jesus’ cross. And here’s the part that’s distinctive for our series: God is weird. St. Augustine said: “If you understand it, it is not God.” Don’t expect to understand. But do expect to be amazed. To stand in awe. To be in danger. And then to be saved. Amen.