Pentecost XI – August 24, 2014
A sermon preached by The Rev. Dianne Andrews at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA.
In our lesson from Exodus we hear a story of midwives who, in the course of their work, help to birth one of the greatest known stories of God’s liberating action in history. Their holy work was their obedience to God and their disobedience to Pharaoh.
In any time and in any place…to be a midwife is to devote one’s life to a sacred rhythm that is removed from ordinary time. To be a midwife is to be called upon at any and all hours of the day or the night… It is to use skill, wisdom and experience to be a non-anxious presence and a facilitator… one who helps the intense process of labor process move towards birth. The process of birth often involves pain, fear, and sometimes even death… and it is messy. The best reward is the survival of both mother and child and the joy of hearing the healthy cry of a newborn and placing the child into welcoming arms. The work of the midwife is to attend to life. The work is not for the faint of heart. A 16th century text on midwifery said that a midwife “…should possess a lady’s hand, a hawk’s eye and a lion’s heart.” It is no wonder that two ordinary midwives were key players in the great birth of freedom that was laboring to be born on the banks of the Nile in ancient Egypt.
Now a new king arose over Egypt… This king had no memory of how Abraham’s great-grandson Joseph had come to the rescue of a previous pharaoh. He had no memory of how the people of Israel had once been greatly welcomed in Egypt… and no memory of how the two nations had prospered together… and had lived in harmony… together… This memory had evaporated into dust… it was not even a distant echo to this unnamed pharaoh who is ruling in this first chapter of the book of Exodus.
Chaos and upheaval marked this new time as the Hebrew people who were once viewed as friends were now regarded as subhuman… multiplying like rabbits or insects… These people were looked upon with suspicion, and dread. They had become such a threat to Pharaoh that he felt the need to act. In the tumult of his own fear Pharaoh got tough on the people of Israel. He sent taskmasters to oppress the Hebrews and make them slave builders for Egypt. But the more Pharaoh used his fist of oppression, the more their numbers increased… and with their increase in numbers, the sense of threat seemed to magnify even more… and a cycle of fear and ruthlessness and oppression came to afflict the nation of Egypt … and the bitter life of toil and tears… that the Israelites knew… seemed to know no end… Where was the hope? How was this vicious cycle going to be interrupted?
And the cycle of fear continued… it was not enough simply to enslave a whole people. Pharaoh’s fear moved him to take even more dreadful actions. Pharaoh ordered the two Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah,… as if they would obey him as readily as would his own Egyptian officers… “you are to kill any male child that is born of a Hebrew woman.” Girls you may let live… but kill the boys. Chilling. The lion hearted midwives knew death…it happened in the course of their work…but not murder. Theirs was to be the first act of civil disobedience recorded in our Holy Scriptures.
This story is setting the scene for one of the greatest movements of God’s action in the world. We know that Moses will lead his people out of oppression under Pharaoh and into freedom in the great Exodus out of Egypt. For now the labor is in its early stages as the story is just beginning to unfold. Moses is soon to be born. The moment of his call out of the royal household and onto his true path as a great leader of Israel is yet to come as is his great showdown with Pharaoh, the coming of the great plagues … and finally a harrowing journey into the promised land.
We do not know the name of this pharaoh who ordered the murder of the male children of Israel. But the names of the two midwives have been noted for posterity. Shiphrah means “fair.” Puah means “fragrance.” These two women, whose vocation was literally to help facilitate birth, to be with women in the moanings and groanings and messiness of pain and labor and birth… these two women were midwives to the birth freedom for God’s people Israel. Their holy “disobedience” to Pharaoh was faithfulness to their awesome God. They said “no” to a murderous earthly ruler. …and the population of Israelites kept growing. Pharoah summoned Shiphrah and Puah to ask why they had allowed the boys to live. The women lied… telling Pharoah that the Hebrew women were hearty (like animals in the wild) and gave birth before the midwives arrived and had a chance to dispose of newborn male children. God was pleased with these faithful women… these facilitators and partners in God’s saving action in the world… and the people of Israel continued to multiply and became very strong. Pharaoh couldn’t take it… and he issued an order that all of his people participate in the slaughter of Hebrew male children… not just midwives… but all of the people of Egypt…by throwing the male children of Isarael into the Nile to drown. Where was the hope?
In the midst of this mayhem Moses was born and was helped to survive. The story of Pharoah’s daughter discovering the papyrus, ark-like basket in the Nile is well known. When the princess’ maid fetched the child from the water she knew immediately that it is was a Hebrew boy baby but she didn’t say a word… Next comes another act of disobedience that helped move the great story along… Moses’ own sister Miriam plays a part, as does her mother who is paid to nurse her own son. The child grew. When he was weaned he was returned to Pharaoh’s daughter who took him as her own son to be a prince of Egypt… and the great story continued to unfold. Oppression and death did not have the final word.
Two humble midwives interrupted a horrific cycle of death.. and they did so in the normal course of their work. They interrupted the cycle by not going along with Pharaoh’s orders. They interrupted the cycle by being faithful to a greater calling.
Stories of God’s saving acts continued. In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus… we are given the ultimate expression of God’s presence in the world with us…and the story of God’s call to life, over the forces of death, continues down to us to this very day. We know the names of many who have participated in this sacred commitment to life but most of the helpers go unnamed in history… but not to God. In large and small ways they have done their faithful part to help to interrupt cycles of death and chaos in their obedience to God’s greater vision of peace and justice on earth. Opportunities to be faithful to our living God abound… opportunities large and small. We, too, are called… to participation, not complacency… and our participation requires that we live our faithfulness where we are, with the gifts, skills, experience, and opportunities we have been given.
The greatest interrupter of all came to us in the most humble of circumstances. His whole being was the embodiment of God’s call to life. He said “no” to the forces of the empire that sought to contain, suppress and extinguish God’s greater vision. He stood up to the death dealing powers of the empire. All of the way to his death on the cross Jesus said “yes” to God’s ultimate call to life… a life in which the resurrection had the final word… after which the shackles of death, in all of its forms, were broken. Jesus asked the disciples “But who do you say that I am.” Simon Peter answered, “You are the messiah, the Son of the living God.” To which Jesus responded, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my father in heaven.” Jesus asks us, “Who do you say that I am?” And who is this messiah? …the God who calls us to into the fullness of life… and to be participants in the continuing realization of the coming together of heaven and earth. The laboring is hard and at times very painful. We are called to help this great birth. This quote from Mahatma Gandhi says it well:
“The future depends on what you do today.
“Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.”
…. Insignificant in that what you do, what we do, most likely will not make the headlines and will most likely go unnoticed to the world… but not to God. What what we do in faithfulness is of crucial importance nonetheless.
Our calling as God’s people is to show up and to participate, however we can, in saying “no” to forces of death and oppression. .. and “yes” to life, and well being, and justice for the realization of God’s greatest vision… if not today or tomorrow… in God’s own time. Our participation, whatever size… will not be insignificant. It is called faithfulness, and it will be blessed.