Resilience: Meddling Midwives

Sermon August 30, 2020

Preached at First Congregational Church, Loveland UCC By Rev. Thandiwe Dale-Ferguson

Scripture Passage: Exodus 1:8-2:10

Will you pray with me? Holy God, midwife of all beginnings and all endings that are also beginnings, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
What if everything, every small action we take, matters? What if it has the power to change a life?What if we have, in our own hands, the power to make all the difference in the world?
Perhaps you have never heard the names Shiphra or Puah before. I hope after today, they stand among your Biblical heroes. I imagine one older, perhaps Shiphrah: an experienced midwife who has been serving her Hebrew community for decades. She is well known, trusted and beloved. Puah is younger, having started out as Shiphrah’s apprentice but certainly her equal by now. The two love the work they do — the messy, mundane, miraculous work of delivering babies.
That is until they are called before the Pharaoh. I can’t help but imagine them quaking in their sandals as they stand before the ruler of all Egypt. And then they are told — ordered — to do the unthinkable. To kill all the baby boys they deliver. Are they simply supposed to pretend that the child died during birth? To hand over a limp body to a grieving new mom offering platitudes and apologies? [PAUSE] It won’t be long before their community notices a pattern. Why is it that only the girls survive Shiphrah and Puah’s ministrations? This will be no way to keep this evil a secret.
So to Pharaoh’s face, the two women agree. “Yes Pharaoh,” I imagine them saying as they bow low. “It will be as you command.”  But, of course, it isn’t. These women are called to the work of birthing, the work of life, the work of bringing babies from womb into the world. And so they disobey Pharaoh’s command. Because they love God and because their compassion is stronger than their fear.
Did you know that “the Hebrew word for compassion is taken from the root word rechem, which means womb”[1]? I can’t help but marvel at these two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah who are womb workers in a now double sense of the word. And in this story, their civil disobedience, their courage puts a protective womb, a net of compassion around the Hebrew mothers and their newborn sons.
It doesn’t take Pharaoh long to notice that the Hebrew boys just keep on being born. So he calls the midwives back. And what do they do? Another bold act of civil disobedience. They lie. They play into Pharaoh’s fear of the Israelites’ strength. “These Hebrew women are not like the Egyptians. They are vigorous and strong. There is nothing we can do about the baby boys. They are nursing at their mothers’ breasts by the time we arrive.”
So Pharaoh hatches another plan. His people, the Egyptians, will kill the Israelite sons. They will cast the babies into the Nile, to drown, I assume. Or to be eaten by crocodiles and other lurking predators.
And so we come to our next set of female resistors. Our next tale of civil disobedience. Of compassion. A Hebrew woman who hides her baby boy as long as she can. And then who follows the word of the law, but not its intention. She does, after all, cast her child into the Nile, but not without wrapping him up and placing him in a waterproof basket. Not without the watchful eyes of his big sister, waiting to see what will happen.
Does the mother know where the Egyptian princess comes to bathe? Is she gambling on the compassion of Pharaoh’s daughter? The story only tells us that the princess comes and sees the basket among the reeds, hears the crying baby and feels sorry for him,. She knows exactly who this baby is, whose this baby is, and what the rules are in relationship to Hebrew boys, and yet compassion moves her.
Perhaps the irony is not lost on you that the child ends up back with his own biological mother, now under the physical and financial protection of Pharaoh’s daughter. When the baby has been weaned, his mother takes him back to the princess who adopts him as her own son and names him Moses, for she drew him out of the water.
Simple acts of courage and compassion, sometimes of civil disobedience — refusing to follow an order or law or custom that is wrong — have the power to change the future of not just one child but a nation. In this story,  two nations: Israel and Egypt. For under Moses’ leadership, the Israelites will escape slavery, they will be liberated from Egyptian oppression. [PAUSE]
What if everything we do, every courageous compassionate action we take, no matter how small matters? What if it has the power to change a life? A nation? Our world?
Right now, our world is filled with uncertainty, bitterness, fear, hatred and violence. In the last week, a man Jacob Blake was parilyzed by the police — shot in the back seven times. Three protestors were shot and killed. Fires rage on here in Colorado and California. A violent storm has devastated Louisiana even as Iowans still struggle to recover from the derecho that destroyed so many of their communities.
Jobs once furloughed are soon to be lost permanently. Families, teachers, educators and school staff navigate back-to-school with challenges and concerns they have not had to face before. The Republican and Democratic National Conventions fed us fear: more reasons for division and distrust. Less reason for collaboration, compromise and compassion.
The problems seem overwhelming, impossible even. And we feel powerless. In such a time, our actions can feel pointless, futile. So why not just act out of fear if it doesn’t matter anyway? Why not simply distract ourselves ]and aim for immediate gratification, whatever that looks like right now? Why not simply look out for us and ours? [PAUSE]
Why not? Because the truth has always been that our actions DO matter. Just as Shiphrah and Puah’s courage to disobey Pharoah’s order mattered. Just as a young mother’s choice to hide her baby mattered. Just as a princess’s compassion to adopt a condemned Hebrew infant mattered. The did not know they were changing history. They did not know who this infant would become: God’s servant, Moses, the one who would liberate all of Israel.
Perhap you’ve heard of the butterfly effect: that a single simple action has the power to change the world. An act of compassion and courage in the face of injustice; an act of compassion and generosity in the face of need; an act of compassion and faith in the face of fear; an act of compassion and presence in the face of division and isolation.
Isn’t this, after all, what it means to be resilient? Not simply to overcome challenges but to live and act with courage and compassion especially when the going gets tough. Especially when things seem impossible. Especially when it feels like our actions DO NOT MATTER.
Because beloved of God, they do. They do matter. This is the message of our strange story of meddling midwives, a persistent parent and a peace-loving princess. This is the message of the gospel over and over and over again. Feed the poor. House the homeless. Visit the prisoner. Love the stranger AND the enemy. AND your neighbor and yourself. Practice generosity. Have faith. Hope. Rejoice and whatever else you do, do it in love. Because it matters. Because this is resilience. Because, difficult though it be, this is the road to resurrection. Not just for you or for me, but for all of us, for all humanity.
So this week, practice resilience. Act with courage and compassion. You never know how God may be transforming a life, a relationship, a community, even the world through you! Amen.

[1] Bonnie Wilkes, “The Womb of Compassion”

© 2020 Thandiwe Dale-Ferguson, all rights reserved. Please contact for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.

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