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Sermon on Exodus 1:8 – 2:10
21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
About three weeks ago our country mourned the death of civil rights leader, preacher and congressman John Lewis, who has been quoted widely at services held for him and in major news outlets since his death. His most famous utterance may be this: “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to stand up, speak out, and find a way to get in the way and get in trouble. Good trouble. Necessary trouble.”
Shiphrah and Puah, the midwives who spared the Hebrew baby boys, got into some good and necessary trouble. They found a way to get in the way, to be a burr under the saddle of Pharaoh and a “piece of grit in the state machinery” of Pharaoh’s Egypt.[i]
The king of Egypt was having some problems with one of his predecessor’s immigration policies. The Hebrews had come down from Canaan several generations ago, when Joseph was right-hand man to the king. They’d had a pretty good life in Egypt, because of the high esteem in which Joseph was held; but this king, this current Pharaoh, didn’t know Joseph, and really didn’t care to hear how great he’d been – all he knew was that Joseph’s descendants seemed to be multiplying like rabbits, and it scared him.
The Hebrews could be a security risk. What if they began forming alliances with the people on the border? And their fertility rate was really alarming! What if they started to outnumber the Egyptians? They could be a threat to the Egyptian way of life. So the Hebrews, who have enjoyed most-favored immigrant status, are suddenly branded as potential terrorists.
Pharaoh pursues increasingly desperate strategies to push back the Israelite tide. First he enslaves them, and when that doesn’t work, he orders a clandestine targeted extermination, and when THAT doesn’t work, he moves to full-scale genocide.
The forced labor strategy should have worked. If you kept the slaves busy almost all the time, they’d be too exhausted to do anything for themselves. They wouldn’t have the energy or resources to band together, tell their stories, or make more babies. Eventually their identity would be wiped out. They would be anonymous tools of the regime, living out their hopeless lives in the Egyptian gulag.
Fortunately, though, the forced labor didn’t work. Imagine Pharaoh’s perplexity and rage to discover that “the more [the Hebrews] were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread.” There must have been something inhuman about them, something almost fiendish. So Pharaoh’s next step was justifiable in his eyes: he enlisted the aid of the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, to get rid of the baby boys. This plan must have seemed logical to him, but there’s something crucial he failed to consider: the entire vocation of a midwife is to preserve life. So Shiphrah and Puah used their wit and courage to preserve the lives of the Hebrew babies. “These Israelite women are like oxen,” they say to Pharaoh. “They give birth so easily that their babies are born before any midwife can get to them.”
So Pharaoh’s order of genocide doesn’t work – his own daughter fishes the baby Moses out of the water and sees to it that he is cared for – ironically, by his own mother! The Egyptian princess and the baby’s sister act in concert, the princess not really knowing what she is doing but acting out of her instinct to preserve life. So the survival of the Hebrew people has been brought about through a bunch of women! Pharaoh can get the entire Egyptian populace to bend to his will, but he can’t get two lowly slave women to do what he says. And the reason is that these two women “feared God” more than they feared Pharaoh.
They certainly had a lot of reason to fear the king of Egypt. Their witty response to his challenge makes for a funny story, but can you imagine what would have happened to those women if Pharaoh had figured out how they were duping him? They would have been imprisoned or executed. But they took that chance, because they feared God more than Pharaoh. Their way of getting in the way eventually led to the complete breakdown of Pharaoh’s power over the Hebrews.
This is a story the Bible tells over and over: God playing behind the scenes, working through the weakest, most vulnerable people to bring down an oppressor. But in this story it is the women themselves who take the initiative, because they believe that they have the power to reverse an injustice.
Another figure from the civil rights movement, much less famous than John Lewis, is a woman named Ethel Payne. She was a granddaughter of slaves and the first African-American woman to be part of the White House press corps, during the Eisenhower administration. The movement in those days was just beginning to pick up steam, and Ethel Payne was the press corps member who asked the hard questions no one else was asking. At one point, when she asked the president if the administration was going to take action to ban segregation in interstate travel, the president lost his usual polite composure and shot back that the administration was “not in the effort to support any particular or special group of any kind,” a response that came as a shock to everyone in the room. In press conferences after that, Eisenhower stopped calling on Payne, and his press secretary started exploring ways to revoke her accreditation. She kept asking questions, though, expanding her reporting to the emerging Southern battlegrounds of the movement. “Newsmakers never ceased to complain about her aggressiveness,”[ii] but her so-called aggressiveness was simply that she asked the questions no one else was asking. She was another piece of grit in the machinery of white privilege in America.
The success of the civil rights movement was brought about through ordinary people who were not afraid to act as individuals, however powerless their society may have considered them to be – people, we may say, who feared God more than the powers-that-be in governments and legislatures.
In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul writes, “God has chosen what is weak to shame the strong.” Just as God’s power and glory were revealed through the death of a crucified Jewish man at the hands of the Roman state, so are God’s power and glory revealed in the courageous actions of people like Shiphrah and Puah, Ethel Payne, and John Lewis, who was not a congressman but a poor seminary student when he went on his first Freedom Ride.
Their stories say to each of us, “You are not powerless.” Every day there are choices you can make, things you can do, to move against injustice. These actions may be as seemingly ordinary as helping a new immigrant learn to read English, or empowering a child stand up to a bully, or speaking up to a school board against a policy that would put the most at-risk children in the worst-performing schools, or calling out a neighbor or relative on a racist or anti-Semitic remark… or, maybe, simply asking the questions no one else is asking. Ordinary people do things like this.
They do these kinds of things even when everything around us suggests that there is nothing we can do. Certainly the news in our country and around the world in the last few months has been sobering, not to say depressing: the mounting death rate from covid-19 and the shutdown of schools and universities in its wake; widespread unemployment and desperation and mounting fear of eviction; unarmed Black citizens killed by police; children on our southern border still waiting to be reunited with their parents. It’s easy to conclude that the conditions that lead to these events are bigger than we are, that we are powerless against them. And yet…that hasn’t prevented doctors and nurses from caring for their sick and dying patients, at great risk to their own health and safety. It hasn’t stopped the voices speaking out against needless and heedless deaths on our streets. It hasn’t stopped ordinary citizens from organizing to provide food and other necessities to the people hardest hit by the economic effects of the pandemic. It hasn’t stopped reporters from going into dangerous and hostile places so that the rest of us can know what is going on in the world.
Small courageous actions can ripple outwards with consequences beyond what we can see. Shiphrah and Puah could not have known that their act of quiet defiance would end up saving a certain special baby, who would be instrumental in forming a Hebrew nation that would eventually bring the message of God’s salvation to the world. The trouble they stirred up was “good trouble, necessary trouble.”
May God grant to each of us the vision and the courage to find a way to get in the way.
Manassas Presbyterian Church
August 23, 2020
[i] The phrase comes from the novelist Graham Greene, quoted by Fleming Rutledge, The Bible and the New York Times (Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans, 1998), 31.
[ii] James McGrath Morris, “A tribute to the ‘first lady of the black press’,” The Washington Post, August 14, 2011.