“Micah, Moses, Miriam”

Download a PDF of this sermon here.


Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

February 9, 2014 – Women’s Sunday

Scripture:  Micah 6:1-8


Have you heard of a woman named Rigoberta Menchú?  Some of you may have; others may not.  Though her name is known around the world now, she came from obscure and humble beginnings.  Rigoberta Menchú was born into a Quiché Maya family in the rural highlands of Guatemala in 1959.  Schooling was hard to come by for poor indigenous children, and though she did get through primary school, she was not able to continue beyond that level.  Mostly, she grew up growing subsistence crops on her family’s small farm, and picking coffee from time to time on larger plantations to earn money to buy the things they couldn’t produce for themselves.  In the fields, they were exposed to pesticides and other chemicals so toxic that they took the life of one of her brothers.  They suffered from malnutrition, which claimed another brother.  They were compensated poorly and treated even worse because of their indigenous language, heritage, dress, and culture, as well as their poverty and lack of education.

If you know the history of Central America, you know that in that time period, there was severe unrest and violence in Guatemala and several neighboring countries.  Indigenous villages were burned to the ground.  Poor peasant farmers, known as campesinos, were conscripted into the military or forced from their homes.  Anyone who resisted the military rulers risked being “disappeared,” a euphemism for being kidnapped, tortured, and murdered.

Growing up in this climate, Rigoberta could have lived a quiet life in the relative security of compliance—but she did not.  She was influenced by liberation theology, a school of thought developed in the Catholic church in that region that interpreted our faith through the eyes of the poor and marginalized.  And she was influenced by the example of her family, who stood up for the human rights of their community.

Rigoberta’s surviving brother, only a teenager, was arrested, tortured, and killed by the army.  The next year, her father was killed during a protest.  The year after that, her mother met the same fate as her brother.  Rigoberta could have backed down, could have been frightened into submission—but she did not, she was not.  When Guatemala became too dangerous to stay, she took up residence in Mexico, where she came onto the international stage as an outspoken advocate for human rights.  In 1992, when she was only 33, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  She has continued her work for several decades, despite threats and imprisonment.  With her help, Guatemala has made significant strides toward peace and justice.


 *          *          *

Have you heard of a woman named Wangari Maathai?  Some of you may have; others may not.  Though her name is known around the world now, she came from obscure and humble beginnings.  Wangari Maathai was born in 1940 in rural Kenya.  She was fortunate enough to attend school in her village, though it meant living apart from her father, who was working out in the farmlands of the Great Rift Valley.  She was still more fortunate to continue into intermediate school, where she performed at the top of her class and earned a spot in a Catholic girls’ high school, the only one in the country.  She did very well in high school, and by the time she finished, she had earned an opportunity to travel to the United States for college.  She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology in this country, and later returned to Kenya and became the first woman from East Africa to receive a Ph.D.

After some years of teaching, shattering all kinds of glass ceilings along the way, she shifted into work with NGOs and international agencies.  In 1977, she founded the Green Belt Movement, an organization that to this day empowers impoverished rural women to transform their lives, their communities, their country, and their world, through the planting of trees to reforest and rehabilitate degraded lands.  Since its founding, the organization has facilitated the planting of more than 51 million trees.

Later, Wangari was targeted by the government and police for her pro-democracy stands.  Because of her vociferous work for women’s rights, environmental protection, and democratic process, she was imprisoned, she was beaten, she was publically condemned.  She was called a threat to the nation’s order and security, a strong-minded crazy woman who would do better to be quiet and respect men.  She could have given up at any point, but she remained steadfast and determined.  And eventually, with her help, the world began to change, and she was eventually elected to Kenya’s parliament with 98% of the vote.  In 2004, Wangari Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  With her help, Kenya has made significant strides toward environmental and social justice.


*          *          *

Have you heard of a woman named Rose Schneiderman?  Some of you may have; others may not.  Though her name is known around the world now, she came from obscure and humble beginnings.  She was born into a Jewish family in a small town in Poland in 1882.  Her family immigrated to the United States when she was a little girl, and her father died soon thereafter, leaving the family struggling to make ends meet.  Her mother’s work as a seamstress was not enough to provide for her children, so for a while, they went to live in an orphanage.  Rose Schniederman attended school through the sixth grade, but then had to leave to take a job and contribute to her family.

She went to work in the garment industry, where she and her colleagues endured dangerous and oppressive conditions.  At the age of 21, she began to work as an organizer, helping her sister workers in their quest for better wages and safer workplaces.  At first, she was laughed out of the union offices, but she quickly rose to prominence in the labor movement in New York City.  A few years later, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire killed 146 workers brought greater attention to the struggle and suffering of garment workers in this country.  Rose eventually became a national president of the Women’s Trade Union League, was a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, and was a great advocate of women’s suffrage.

Rose Schneiderman never received a Nobel Prize or other great recognition.  But with her help, the United States made significant strides toward equality and justice.


*          *          *

These women are three among many, many others who have lived lives that embody the call to which the prophet Micah summons us:  to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.  Rigoberta Menchú, Wangari Maathai, and Rose Schneiderman are three examples of what it can mean to follow Micah’s call, to follow God’s call.  They dedicated themselves, at significant personal risk and with a great deal of sacrifice, to helping reshape our world to more closely resemble the world as God yearns for it to be.  They began where they were, by addressing the immediate needs and injustices they and the people around them faced, and one step after another led them to lives that are known around the world.  And today, on this Women’s Sunday, Rigoberta, Wangari, and Rose stand as proxies for the millions and billions of anonymous others whose lives remain unknown to us, but who nevertheless make important contributions toward the cause of justice, the cause Micah extols.

This text from Micah, this text that lives in the lives of Rigoberta and Wangari and Rose and so many others, is one of the most well-known texts among progressive Christians.  We love its pithiness, its straight-to-the-point-ness, its crystal-clear encapsulation of the character of a faithful life.  Justice, kindness, humility—that’s right up our alley.

But if we hear only that last, best-known verse, the one about justice and kindness and humility, we run the risk of missing something important about the earlier verses of today’s text.  If we focus entirely on our earnest, serious, well-intentioned quest for justice, we run the risk of missing something important about the kind of life to which Micah is calling us, the kind of life to which God is calling us.

Did you catch it as Nancy read for us this morning?  Micah roots his call to do justice against the historical background of the Exodus, the flight of the Israelite people from Egypt to the land of Canaan, from bondage and slavery to freedom and justice.  For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, says God.

Normally, when we tell the story of the Exodus, we tell the story with Moses as the great hero.  Moses was the one to whom God spoke from the burning bush, the one whom God sent to tell Pharaoh to “let my people go.”  Moses was the one who led the people through the wilderness, the one who went up the mountain to speak with God and receive the Ten Commandments.  He was a strong and dedicated leader who took the welfare of his people, the call of God, and the cause of justice seriously.  He was the protagonist, the central character of this dramatic story.

When we mention Aaron, he is Moses’ right-hand-man, his sidekick, playing second fiddle to Moses, the concertmaster.  And Miriam—well, we hardly ever mention her at all.


*          *          *

Have you heard of a woman named Miriam?  Some of you may have; others may not.  Though her name is known around the world now, she came from obscure and humble beginnings.  Miriam was Moses’ sister, the one who kept watch over him in his reed basket in the river when he was a baby, the one who brought their mother to serve as Moses’ nursemaid after Pharaoh’s daughter fished him out of the water… and she stuck with him well into adulthood.

Given that Miriam is named several times in the book of Exodus, it seems likely that she must have had some important role in the Israelites’ quest for freedom, in their journey out of Egypt.  She may have been Moses’ confidant, or the one who rallied the female vote for him.  She may have been a community leader, or she may have had a great sense of direction and a keen eye for danger, or she may have simply been one of those positive people you want to have around on a long and difficult journey.

But none of that is what we have on record for Miriam.  We don’t have much described in our surviving scriptures about her.  But what we do have is this:  she sang a song of joy.  The story of the Exodus has her right beside Moses and Aaron as they led the people across the Red Sea, leaving Pharaoh’s horses and chariots behind to be washed away.  There, on that far seashore, fresh from their escape, Miriam “took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing,” and she led the people in a song of victory, a joyful celebration of what had occurred.

Miriam knew something important, something that you miss if you only focus on the earnest, serious, well-intentioned quest for justice.  Miriam knew that the struggle for justice is not complete without beauty, too.

Miriam knew that the struggle for justice is not complete without beauty, too.  She knew that we humans seek more than mere existence.  She knew that God calls us to a full and thriving life, a life that goes beyond simple survival, a life that includes celebration, too.  She knew that beauty is part and parcel of the full human life, that it is not an optional luxury but an essential necessity.  Miriam knew that the struggle for justice is not complete without beauty, too.

So did Rigoberta Menchú.  Rigoberta seeks not only survival and safety, not only peace and security, but freedom of cultural expression, freedom to dance and sing to her native music, and to speak her native language, and to celebrate her native heritage.

So did Wangari Maathai.  Wangari sought not only seedlings and ground to plant them in, not only equal pay and equal opportunity, but equal opportunities for self-determination and self-expression, the chance to write her own story rather than have someone else write it for her.

So did Rose Schneiderman.  Rose coined one of the most famous and enduring phrases of the American labor movement when she said, “What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist—the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art.  You have nothing that the humblest worker has not a right to have also.  The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.”  The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.  This phrase inspired a poem, which was, in turn, set to music, which goes something like this:


As we come marching, marching in the beauty of the day,

A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,

Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,

For the people hear us singing:  “Bread and roses!  Bread and roses!”


As we come marching, marching, we battle too for men,

For they are women’s children, and we mother them again.

Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;

Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!


As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead

Go crying through our singing their ancient cry for bread.

Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.

Yes, it is bread we fight for – but we fight for roses, too!


As we come marching, marching, we bring the greater days.

The rising of the women means the rising of the race.

No more the drudge and idler – ten that toil where one reposes,

But a sharing of life’s glories:  Bread and roses!  Bread and roses!


Not only bread, but roses.

Not only justice, but beauty.

Not only Moses, but Miriam.

This is the cause to which Micah calls us.

This is the full life that God promises us.

If you think that’s good news, then say Amen.