*The following sermon was preached at Lexington United Methodist Church on Sunday, August 24, 2014 by MFSA executive director, Chett Pritchett*
So often when we turn to Scripture, we find a lot of unnamed people, especially unnamed women
-the woman at the well
-the many woman who were behind the scenes at feast and festivals
-and last week, I’m sure you heard all about the Canaanite woman, whom Jesus called a dog.
It wasn’t Jesus’ most shining moment.
That’s why this week, I’m happy to say, our text from the Hebrew Scriptures, presents us with two women whose names are known to us: Shiphrah and Puah.
Now I’ll admit it – I like saying their names: Shiphrah and Puah.
For me it’s kind of like when the hyenas say “Mufasa” in The Lion King. I just want to keep saying those names over and over again.
Shiphrah and Puah were two midwives in the Egyptian court. Their boss was Pharoah. And whatever Pharoah says you do. It’s sort of like that line we see in so many job descriptions these days. It’s usually the last line and it states: Other duties as assigned.
Now the Pharoah wasn’t just a demanding boss. Pharoah was ruler over all of Egypt.
Now in this time, the Hebrew people were enslaved in Egypt. They were forced to build temples, pyramids, and other great structures for the benefit of their captors.
But as what often happens in the acts of migration, children are born. Generations multiply prolifically, and those at the top of the food chain start to get nervous. Pharoah – which incidentally means “great house” – was afraid his house would no longer be great.
And so, a decree went out to the midwives. “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.”
Every time I read and re-read this passage over the past few weeks, I would laugh.
I would laugh, not because this is a story that is funny. Or a story with great humor.
I laughed because poor, poor Pharoah just didn’t get it.
You see Pharoah thought that greatness was passed down through male lineage.
Shiphrah and Puah, those midwives, they knew differently – Jewish heritage is passed down maternally.
So faced with Pharoah’s decree, Shiphrah and Puah already saw a flaw.
If greatness wasn’t tied to male lineage, then killing newborn boys wasn’t going to assuage Pharoah’s fears. Or accomplish anything really but turn malice into rage.
Our reading of Scripture tells us the midwives ignored Pharoah’s command because they “feared God.” Throughout both Hebrew and Christian Scriptures we hear about people “fearing God” – I suggest this is a poor translation – instead of literally being afraid of God and belief in a God of vengeance, a better concept is “trusting God” – a God of goodness and grace and love – a God who seeks to be in relationship with the world.
Pharoah was the one filled with fear. Shiphrah and Puah were filled with trust.
What’s amazing about Shiphrah and Puah is this – we don’t know if they were Egyptians – or Hebrews – or another religious persuasion. But we do know they were skeptical of what Pharoah asked of them, and they had trust in the same God in which the Hebrew woman had trust.
In fact, they had so much trust in this God, they chose to be resistors against a temporal expression of injustice in favor of an expression of divine justice.
Shiphrah and Puah became resistors of oppression. Their risk provides opportunity for transformation.
Oh, friends, oh how I wish our world today did not present us with opportunities to be resistors of oppression. And yet every day we see it in our newspapers, our Facebook feeds, and for many of us, right outside our very own doors.
Like Shiphrah and Puah, we live on the edge between risk and transformation.
As a gay man, I have come to learn the difference between “friends” and “allies” in the movement for LGBTQ justice in The United Methodist Church. You see, friends are the people who say “you know where I stand, but I just can’t be seen as choosing a side.” Or “I’ll be more vocal once I get ordained.” Or “You need to understand, I’m a bishop for the whole Church.” Some friends those are.
But allies…allies are the people who “get it.” They’re the one’s who say, “I have privilege because of your oppression.” Or “I will use my privilege to make sure your voice is heard before mine is.”
No matter their identification – Egyptian or Hebrew – Shiphrah and Puah used their position of privilege – as midwives with direct communication from Pharoah to be allies to the enslaved Hebrew people.
Over the past three weeks, police violence in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson have brought conversations of race and racism to water coolers and dinner tables across America.
Now, More than ever, our world needs allies, instead of friends.
Again and again I have heard friends say, “Now Chett, you should know there are two sides to every story.”
Others have said, “We don’t know the real story, so we’re not going to comment.”
Even leaders in our own United Methodist denomination have been painfully slow to comment – and when they have we see words and phrases like “de-escalate” and “we don’t know the truth.”
Here is what I know about Ferguson, Missouri. Like many American suburbs, Ferguson has experienced “reverse white flight.” As it becomes more and more “hip” to live in urban centers, mostly-white, and probably mostly progressive, young people move in, driving property values upward. Those who can no longer afford to live in urban cores have moved to the suburbs for lower costs of living. Disproportionately, these are often people of color and those in immigrant communities.
Ferguson’s median household income is just over $37,000 a year. (To give some perspective, that’s about $100k less than the median household income here in Lexington). One-quarter of households are led by a single, female parent. Almost the same percentage of people under the age of 18 live BELOW the poverty line.
Here’s what I know about Ferguson: Things were bad long before Michael Brown was shot by a police officer. It didn’t matter if he was a good kid, or a smart kid, or a kid who was about to start college. True, Michael Brown didn’t deserve to be shot because he was a good kid or a smart kid. He simply didn’t deserve to be shot. Period.
Here’s something else I know about Ferguson: justice and reconciliation do not begin with being nice; they begin with deep, deep lamentation. No movement for justice in this world ever began with “kum bay ya.” They begin with weeping and gnashing of teeth, with walking through the valley of the shadow of death.
Here’s what I know about Ferguson: there are two sides to every story. Justice. And injustice.
So when I hear my friends say “remember, there are two sides to every story,” or “we need to get all the facts," I can’t help but think of Shiphrah and Puah.
They didn’t have to “get all the facts,” they didn’t engage in rhetoric which calls the questioning of power and privilege “political correctness”; and according to Scripture, they didn’t even call into question if this was “smart” or “safe” or “wise.”
They did it because they know there is a difference between justice and injustice. And they chose to stand on the side of justice.
As a white male with some higher education under my belt, it would be really easy for me to throw my hands in the air and say, “well, that’s their problem.” Or “I pulled myself out of poverty, they can, too.” Or worse I could say this: (LONG PAUSE). That’s right. I could be silent.
Silence is the worst abuse of privilege I’ve ever encountered. We know systemic oppression happens every day, all around us. Or at least I hope we do.
Shiphrah and Puah saw systemic oppression and they used their positions to flip their job descriptions. They still completed that pesky final line: other duties as assigned. Except it wasn’t for the authorities of this world filled with fear; it was for the God of all creation, in whom they trusted and experienced hope for a different kind of world.
In the Gospel lesson today, we hear Jesus ask the question, “Who do you say that I am?”
One of his disciples, Simon Peter, gives an answer. On the surface, Jesus seems pleased with this answer, but when we get to the end, Jesus does a little table-turning.
“Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
That’s right. Jesus did some creative work on that job description – of what it meant to be the child of the living God. Our expectations of the heavenly life cannot be separated from our experience of life on earth. Indeed, temporal, earthly authority does not get the last words where God is concerned.
Not Pharoah. Not Herod. Not Caesar.
Not the armies of yesterday or today or tomorrow.
Not Bull Connor. Not Ferguson Chief Thomas Jackson.
Not Missouri Governor Jay Nixon. Not President Obama.
The powers and principalities of this world do not have the last word. That’s the entire point of the resurrection, my friends! Christ has died – Christ is risen!
And indeed, Christ will come again.
The great social thinker of our time Cornell West says this:
“We are at a crucial crossroads in the history of this nation- and we either hang together by combating these forces that divide and degrade us or we hang separately. Do we have the intelligence, humor, imagination, courage, tolerance, love, respect, and will to meet the challenge? Time will tell. None of us alone can save the nation or world. But each of us can make a positive difference if we commit ourselves to do so.” (1)
While West’s words sound as if they were taken from today’s New York Times, he actually wrote these words 20 years ago. Indeed, time is telling.
As Christians in America in the 21st century, especially those of us who are white, we have privilege beyond belief. But there’s something in our faith tradition that confronts us with our privilege and makes us take note, even if it is an uncomfortable note.
I like to think of our baptismal vows as our “job descriptions” as disciples of Jesus.
We repent of our sin. Check.
We follow Jesus and trust God’s grace. Check.
We nurture. Check.
We believe. Check.
We “accept the freedom and power God gives us to reject evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.”
Now that’s the hardest part of the job description, isn’t it?
Because it’s all dependent on to whom we report.
Like Shiphrah and Puah, we have to ask ourselves –
Do we fear the Pharoah’s of this world?
Or do we trust in God?
Do we let the powers and principalities of this world pass us by?
Or do we help birth a new reality in our midst?
If our answer is the latter, we have to be brace ourselves for “a whole lotta ugly comin' at (us) from a never ending parade of stupid.” (You get points if you know what that’s from).
What I’m getting at is this: being a midwife is messy.
Birth is messy.
Even with the advent of modern medical procedures, there’s still blood
Major social movements have shown us this. From the American civil rights movement to South African Apartheid, we humans have frailty. Even when we try so hard to get it right, sometimes things go wrong.
But knowledge that transforming the world is messy business, should not – no – CANNOT inhibit us from transforming the world!
James Baldwin put it this way:
“If we do not dare everything, the fulfillment of prophecy, recreated from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: GOD GAVE NOAH THE RAINBOW SIGN, NO MORE WATER, THE FIRE NEXT TIME!” (2)
Either we are midwives to a new reality – or we are conduits to destruction.
The witness of Shiphrah and Puah modeled compassion and justice in ways that they likely didn’t know. Pharoah’s daughter had a heart of compassion larger than her Father’s. And the Hebrew child we have come to know as Moses, was not killed, but brought life for a people Pharoah once feared.
From the banks of the Nile to the banks of the Mississippi,
From Shiphrah and Puah, to you and you and you and you and me,
transforming the world begins with working through our job description and checking off that task which is ultimately never finished: other duties as assigned.
(1) West, Cornell. Race Matters. Epilogue to the 1994 edition.
(2) Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time, 1963.
Chett Pritchett is Executive Director of the Methodist Federation for Social Action. He is a graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan College and Wesley Theological Seminary, and is a member at Dumbarton UMC in Washington, DC.