The Midwives’ Tale

Sermon preached for the sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.

Romans 12:1-8

So, brothers and sisters, because of God’s mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service. Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature.

Because of the grace that God gave me, I can say to each one of you: don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought to think. Instead, be reasonable since God has measured out a portion of faith to each one of you. We have many parts in one body, but the parts don’t all have the same function. In the same way, though there are many of us, we are one body in Christ, and individually we belong to each other. We have different gifts that are consistent with God’s grace that has been given to us. If your gift is prophecy, you should prophesy in proportion to your faith. If your gift is service, devote yourself to serving. If your gift is teaching, devote yourself to teaching. If your gift is encouragement, devote yourself to encouraging. The one giving should do it with no strings attached. The leader should lead with passion. The one showing mercy should be cheerful.

Exodus 1:8-2:10

Now a new king came to power in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph. He said to his people, “The Israelite people are now larger in number and stronger than we are. Come on, let’s be smart and deal with them. Otherwise, they will only grow in number. And if war breaks out, they will join our enemies, fight against us, and then escape from the land.” As a result, the Egyptians put foremen of forced work gangs over the Israelites to harass them with hard work. They had to build storage cities named Pithom and Rameses for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they grew and spread, so much so that the Egyptians started to look at the Israelites with disgust and dread. So the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites. They made their lives miserable with hard labor, making mortar and bricks, doing field work, and by forcing them to do all kinds of other cruel work.

The king of Egypt spoke to two Hebrew midwives named Shiphrah and Puah: “When you are helping the Hebrew women give birth and you see the baby being born, if it’s a boy, kill him. But if it’s a girl, you can let her live.” Now the two midwives respected God so they didn’t obey the Egyptian king’s order. Instead, they let the baby boys live.

So the king of Egypt called the two midwives and said to them, “Why are you doing this? Why are you letting the baby boys live?”

The two midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because Hebrew women aren’t like Egyptian women. They’re much stronger and give birth before any midwives can get to them.” So God treated the midwives well, and the people kept on multiplying and became very strong. And because the midwives respected God, God gave them households of their own.

Then Pharaoh gave an order to all his people: “Throw every baby boy born to the Hebrews into the Nile River, but you can let all the girls live.”

Now a man from Levi’s household married a Levite woman. The woman became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She saw that the baby was healthy and beautiful, so she hid him for three months. When she couldn’t hide him any longer, she took a reed basket and sealed it up with black tar. She put the child in the basket and set the basket among the reeds at the riverbank. The baby’s older sister stood watch nearby to see what would happen to him.

Pharaoh’s daughter came down to bathe in the river, while her women servants walked along beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds, and she sent one of her servants to bring it to her. When she opened it, she saw the child. The boy was crying, and she felt sorry for him. She said, “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children.”

Then the baby’s sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Would you like me to go and find one of the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?”

Pharaoh’s daughter agreed, “Yes, do that.” 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’ll pay you for your work.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. After the child had grown up, she brought him back to Pharaoh’s daughter, who adopted him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I pulled him out of the water.”

***

Most families have a story that defines them, an origin story, if you will. For many in America, that’s the story of when their ancestors first came to this country. For some, that’s a story of conquest, or rugged pioneerism; for others, a story of immigration, of back-breaking hard work to forge a better life; for still others, it’s a story of slavery, of choicelessness, of freedom hard-won. How many of you have heard at some point or another some variation of “Be grateful for what you have—think about what your grandparents went through to get you here?”

Our ancestors’ stories matter. They shape our values, how we live. They tell us that we’re hard workers, or trailblazers, or Presbyterians. They tell us why we eat what we eat and what holidays we celebrate. Our ancestor’s stories are always the prologue to our own, no matter how far we think we’ve come.

And that’s where we find ourselves today: in the prologue to our origin story as the people of God.

I’m using that phrase here very carefully, people of God, for a couple of reasons. First, as those of you who know your books of the Bible are aware, Exodus is not the first story our Bible has to tell us. By the time we get to today’s scripture, we’ve got 50 chapters of Genesis behind us, and lots of generations of God-followers—Adam and Noah and Abraham and Jacob and Joseph and everyone in between.

But the thing is, all those Genesis stories are about individuals, or individual families. God sort of pops in and out, talking to one man here, one woman there, but there’s no sense of a people of God. No community that worships God together and follows God’s law together. To be Hebrew and to be a God-follower does not yet seem to be synonymous. It isn’t until Exodus that the whole community is brought together as the people of God.

The other reason I’m using the phrase people of God is because I want to be careful about how we as Christians claim this story as our own. The Christian relationship to the Old Testament is tricky; on the one hand, this is our Bible; these are our sacred scriptures; the Hebrews are our spiritual ancestors. On the other, there is a danger in taking these stories as our own without recognizing the difference in our cultures. To be a Christian is a bit like being a trans-racial adoptee; we inherit these stories, these family values, but we also bring with us cultural stories and values of our own.

The reason why I’m being so pedantic about all this is that the Exodus story is primarily one of a people saved, liberated, lifted out of slavery and oppression. It is a story about God choosing a people who were faced racial hatred and economic exploitation. As God’s people, that means that part of our spiritual DNA should be solidarity and compassion with all who face such oppression now. As American Christians, though, we need to resist the temptation to claim that oppression for ourselves. In recent history, Christians have played the role of Pharaoh as often as they have followed the lead of Moses. This is our story as the people of God, but it is one that should lead us to compassion, not self-pity.

Over the next four weeks, we’ll be dipping into four of the key moments of the Exodus story—today, the first glimpses of a Hebrew resistance; next week, Moses’ encounter with the burning bush; after that, the difficult story of the Passover; and finally, the triumphant escape through the Red Sea. Eventually, this is a story about freedom, but it’s a slow burn to get there, and not every chapter will end in victory.

I’ve been calling today’s story a prologue, rather than the proper beginning. It sets the stage for what is coming—if this were a movie, it would come before the opening credits. Our scripture actually follows right on from the end of Genesis, where Joseph rose through the ranks of Egyptian bureaucracy to establish himself at pharaoh’s right hand, at which point all his brothers—and their wives and children—came to join him in Egypt. Now we have a new pharaoh, and he doesn’t know Joseph, and he looks at the Hebrews and doesn’t see them as Joseph’s brothers, nieces, grandsons, but simply as one large amorphous threat. He doesn’t see neighbors. He sees enemies.

It’s frightening, how fast the tables turn. In just a few verses, the Hebrews go from welcomed emigrants to enslaved workers. All because one man with a lot of power also has a lot of fear.

But the nightmare isn’t over; along with enslaving the Hebrews, Pharaoh decides to add a little infant genocide to his resume. He calls in two women, midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, to carry out his orders. He tells them to kill any baby boys, but let the girls live—girls, of course, not being as much of a threat to him.

I have to imagine Shiphrah and Puah got a good laugh at that.

I will freely admit that Shiphrah and Puah are two of my favorite people in the whole Bible, despite the fact that we don’t know much about them. We don’t even know if they were Hebrew or Egyptian—the original text is something like “midwives of the Hebrews,” which could mean they were ethnically Hebrew, or just worked among them. What we do know is that they were no fools.

Shiprah and Puah know the stakes. They know Pharoah is powerful, and paranoid, and willing to have people killed. They know they don’t have the power to challenge him directly. They know they can’t just refuse him outright, despite the fact that their job, their calling, is to usher in life, not destroy it.

But at the same time Shiphrah and Puah know God. They know they have to do something. They know that they have a different sort of power. They know they are called to resist, however they can.

More than a millennium later, the apostle Paul would write to the Christians of Rome that their job was not to be conformed to the patterns of the world, but transformed by discerning God’s will. Being conformed would certainly have been the safest way to go for Shiphrah and Puah, going along with what Pharoah asked. They certainly would be neither the first nor the last to collaborate with evil to save their own hides. But these two midwives refuse. Instead, they let the children live, and when Pharoah calls them on the carpet about it, they get clever.

Paul talks about spiritual gifts—teaching and serving and encouraging. These spiritual gifts are easy to recognize and put to work in the church. But there are lots more we could add to his list. Take Shriphrah and Puah, for example. These women have the vocational gift of midwifery, of walking with women and their families through one of the most exciting and intimate experiences of life. They have the gift of caring for the most vulnerable members of God’s family.

But alongside all this, Shiphrah and Puah also have the spiritual gift of sass.

Now, before the preteens among us get too excited, I am not saying that Jesus wants you to sass your parents. But the ability to use wit to stand up to injustice is absolutely a spiritual gift. Shiphrah and Puah play right into Pharaoh’s paranoia—it’s that the Hebrew women are so strong, they say. They give birth before we can even get there! What are ya gonna do?

There they stand, playing the fools for Pharaoh, and all the while they are saving lives right and left. It isn’t quite the heroism we would like, but in a system that’s set against them, they do the best they can. It isn’t enough to stop pharaoh—eventually he catches on, and deputizes all his people to carry out his genocide—but it works for a while. It isn’t enough, but it’s something. And I have to think it gave the Hebrews hope, to know that there were two women brave enough to go to bat for them right under Pharaoh’s nose.

The story continues, and other women take the midwives’ place. Moses’ mother—we don’t have her name—hides her baby boy as long as she can, then sends him down the river in a tiny lifeboat. He was supposed to be drowned months ago, and she makes sure he can float. Again, it is a little act of resistance—she doesn’t have the power to keep him safe with her at home. All she can do is give him that lifeboat, and pray it is enough.

It turns out to be. The basket is intercepted by the servants of Pharoah’s daughter, who apparently has a bit of sassiness in her as well. She sees that the baby is one of the Hebrews, one that her father has explicitly ordered killed, and decides she doesn’t give a flip what her dad says. Instead, she adopts him, first sending him back home via his sister to be nursed by his own mother, with pay. It’s a series of little choices—little moments in which these women courageously choose to resist Pharoah’s orders, any way they know how—that save Moses and set him on his path.

This morning’s story does not end in sweeping victory. It is not the story of tyrants overthrown and justice done. It is not the story I wish it was, with every child saved and safe at home.

But that doesn’t mean there’s no hope in it, or no freedom. This is the story about a group of women who put little cracks in the ceiling, little dents in the Way Things Are. This is the story of people doing the best they can to resist violence and exploitation within the circumstances of their lives.

And while I love the big stories—the stories where miracles happen and everything comes out right in the end—I love this little story too. Because I find great hope, and great strength, in the idea that lots of people doing their part to push back on oppression can snowball into something greater.

I have a favorite quote from Mother Theresa; you probably know it. It goes like this. “We can do no big things. Only small things with great love.”

God has given you gifts. Gifts of where you work, gifts of relationships, gifts of personality. Gifts of skills and art. These are the tools you have to do those small things with great love. And whether it seems like it or not, these are the gifts you have to follow in the way of Shiprah and Puah, of Moses and Paul, yes, of Jesus, to resist the idea that other people are here for our exploitation.

Some of us are good talkers, and we can speak out against injustice. Some of us have the gift of humor, and we can diffuse some of the tension and distrust. Some of us are good listeners, and we can help people feel heard and valued. Some of us work with lots of different people throughout the day, and we can help build relationships. Some of us are parents, and we can nurture our children to be kind and loving. Some of us are creative thinkers, and we can envision different ways of solving problems. Some of us are good at praying, and we can hold the pain of the world. Some of us are sassy, and we can look evil in the eye and stick out our tongue and tell it once and for all, You’re not the boss of us.

There are many different ways to push back against injustice. Your neighbor’s way may not be your way, and that’s okay; that’s good. Each one of us serves the God of freedom in our own way, using our own God-given gifts.

The injustices of this world are huge—hunger and corruption and bigotry and bullying and let’s not forget that even in 2017, slavery is still in play—and we can probably never resist enough to knock them all down. We’re as trapped as Shiphrah and Puah were. But that doesn’t mean we cannot resist, and it doesn’t mean our actions don’t make a difference.

Because you never know whether or not the person you save could turn out to be Moses.

We don’t know what happened to Shiprah and Puah. This is all of their story that we get. Perhaps they were old women, and they died never knowing what God had in store for the Hebrew people. But perhaps they were not; perhaps they lived long enough to follow Moses through the waters of the Red Sea; perhaps they lived long enough to turn their backs on Pharoah and walk directly into freedom.

Perhaps they lived long enough to deliver the first free Hebrew boys and girls.

It is a long game, resisting oppression. It is a game we play all our lives. But, by the grace of God, it is a game we know the end of: freedom.

This is where we come from, friends. This is our heritage: we are the people who worked for freedom, even when it seemed far off. We are the people who are told to collaborate with sin, and we say no.

We say no.

And sometimes, we say it with sass.

Amen.

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