Shiphrah and Puah – Do It Afraid (Winton Boyd) 7.22.18

Today’s text is what could be called a ‘watershed moment’ in the life of the Israelites. It is not a long story, but it is a story that has a clear before and after truth within it. It is a pivotal moment in this story, but it is only one of so many such watershed moments throughout the bible in which the midwives and teenagers and forgotten ones say no to evil and yes to life.

 

Exodus 1:8-22 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” 11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13 The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14 and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.

15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 “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.” 17 But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.  18 So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” 19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” 20 So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22 Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”

 

On my, is this a timeless text. Ancient and current. Worth digging into in as part of our summer series on ‘Faces of Faith!’

The opening line (verse 8) of the Exodus story begins with ominous foreshadowing, with just two Hebrew words, translated: “Now a new king arose …” In the story immediately preceding this one, the Jacob cycle concluded in Genesis 50 with Joseph and his brothers having fully reconciled with each other and they and their families residing comfortably in Egypt. With just three words, the author lets the audience know that the story is about to take a turn.

How will this new king treat Jacob’s descendants — immigrants who have contributed to and made their home in Egyptian society? Just in case we don’t catch the foreshadowing, the author adds that this is a king “who did not know Joseph.”

Here in Exodus 1:8 we see that the new king didn’t remember Joseph’s role in keeping the Egyptians alive during a time of famine or simply chose to ignore this piece of history. In any case, it seems to be more willful than a simple act of forgetting. We don’t have to wait long to find out what this means for the Israelite immigrant population.

The Pharaoh says:

Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land (Exodus 1:9-10).

What’s interesting about the king’s assessment of the Israelites in verse 9 is simply not true — the Israelites have not grown more populous than the Egyptians. And what he says in verse 10, further compounding his false statement, is a clear strategy to create an “enemy within” and to stir up fear of the foreign or immigrant other. The Pharaoh then wastes no time in putting a plan together to deal with this dangerous element in their midst.

This is an ancient and modern tactic – try to wipe out future generations. There is always a tension between the death seeking empire and the life force of the oppressed. The empire tries to crush hope by humiliating work, the oppressed respond with a yearning for life beyond themselves (children).

In verse 18 he summons the midwives. Shiprah and Puah. Women named only here, but whose act foreshadows so much. And it’s a reminder that even, maybe especially, those in the employ or servitude of the powerful listen to yet a greater calling, a higher power than their owners. The owners and rulers make decrees, but often their servants have had to be savvy and sly to survive. In the face of being asked to commit murder, these two little known women said “NO!” at great risk to themselves.

Ironically, as I was researching this text, I discovered that in the African American lectionary, this text is a Mother’s day text. I found this amazing little poem inspired by this text:

When Mama Was God – just the title is amazing – knowing that among the most powerless people in our culture, black women have almost always been at the bottom.

 

When mama was God                      

She made miracles happen

In the middle of a Houston ghetto

The center of my universe, indeed.

She walked on water

In three inch heels, matching bag

With us five kids in her footsteps.

She taught us to fear not

Night lightening, thunderstorms

Hard work, new things, good success.

When mama was God

She laid hands on us

So the cops wouldn’t and trifling men couldn’t

Healing bad attitudes and broken hearts.

She stood her ground with white folk

Who were pure evil

 

 

Whether midwives Shiphrah and Puah or the ‘mamma’ who was/is God – it’s clear that every ‘no’ is also a profound ‘yes.’ Put more honestly, every ‘hell no’ is a ‘hell yes.’

No to cruel genocide, yes to infant life and courage.

No to Pharaoh, yes to motherhood.

No to injustice and oppression and yes to human decency, community and the future. Yes to their God.

 

In the When Momma Was God poem the ‘no’ is to external powers seeking to influence or destroy the children; and the ‘yes’ is to their integrity and future. She says no to overwork as an excuse, to white folks who were pure evil, and to the scarcity mentality; all the while saying yes to family, sharing, generosity, prayer and faith.

Today’s text is what could be called a ‘watershed moment’ in the life of the Israelites. It is not a long story, but it is a story that has a clear before and after truth within it. It is a pivotal moment in this story, but it is only one of so many such watershed moments throughout the bible in which the midwives and teenagers and forgotten ones say no to evil and yes to life.

No to be consumed by fear; and yes to acting in faith despite the fear or the hardship.

Bryan Sirchio, local UCC musician recently shared a song inspired by a story he learned from the Rev. Traci Blackmon, a UCC clergyperson and National Church leader.   According to the story, a 5 year old boy was going to say a few words in his church on Easter in front of the whole congregation. When the time came, he was too afraid to do it and refused. Eventually though, he went ahead and spoke his piece. When the pastor then asked him to explain how he got rid of his fear, the little boy said, “I didn’t. I just did it afraid.” Blackmon told the story at a justice rally after white supremacist marches a year ago in Charlottesville.

The lyrics of Bryan’s song – which could easily have been written about Shiphrah and Puah are these:

Sometimes, we just do it afraid

When the fear won’t go away

Then we just do it anyway

Sometimes, when the fear’s still there

Then we offer up a prayer

For a way to be brave

And just do it afraid, do it afraid

 

This small story is but a symbol of an ongoing act in every life of faith.

The moment of saying no in order to say yes. The moment of saying yes despite being afraid, despite facing all kinds of uncertainty.

Here in our building, we have rooms named after several people who had their own watershed moments of faith and life.

Dorothy Day – A major earthquake shook San Francisco on April 18, 1906, when Dorothy Day was 8 and living in Oakland and her family. When the ground finally stopped shaking, the frightened Day emerged from her home to see examples of both chaos and community. This woman who later started the Catholic Worker movement and spent decades companioning the poor once wrote that the aftermath of that earthquake made a profound impact on her. She felt comforted by the sight of people helping one another. “While the crisis lasted, people loved each other.” No to fear, yes to love.

Ruby Bridges – that amazing 6 year old who walked through angry mobs to go to school in New Orleans in 1960, all in an effort to say no to segregation and yes to a new way living as a black child. “Prayer was my protection,” she later said. “Please be with me, I’d asked God, and be with those people too. Forgive them because they don’t know what they’re doing.” No to fear and hatred, yes to prayer and love.

Oscar Romero – The Catholic Archbishop of El Salvador picked to be Archbishop because he was a reliable and conservative bishop who would maintain the status quo in which the church joined the state in ruling the land on behalf of the rich and powerful. Once in his new position, the Spirit worked in his life to the point where he said no to power and privilege in order to say yes to the poor peasants and their God given right to life.  His open support of peasants got him martyred while serving communion.

Bill Johnson – the first openly gay man to be ordained in the San Francisco Bay area in the early 1970’s. He and that bold UCC Association said no to centuries of misunderstanding and fear in order to say yes to ministry and liberation for those relegated to closets and hidden relationships

And just this month, A 25-year-old stateless soccer coach in Thailand who said no to panic and fear in order to say yes to calm meditation and togetherness with his adolescent players while trapped in a cave.

 

None of these people was famous or noteworthy before their watershed moment of saying ‘NO!’ None were protecting a reputation or a legacy or monetary purse. They were acting on the faith they knew. Trusting the Divine as they had been led. Most certainly, ‘doing it afraid…just doing it anyway.’

 

Each of us has ‘watershed’ moments. Each time, in the words of Carrie Newcomer, we ‘do this hard thing’ and say no to the power of fear, evil, confusion, and chaos in order to say yes to love, life, faith and our creator, we create spiritual pathways in our heart. For each watershed moment builds a reservoir of grace and strength, allowing us to step into the next hard thing.

Like you, I can point to moments of clarity and moments of regret; moments when I did step forward to say no in order to say yes and moments when I failed.

The moment I said I will no longer serve a congregation that would not welcome my gay siblings; and those moments when I failed to say no when those I loved needed me too.

The moment I said no to the fear of Muslims in a small Palestinian village in order to say yes to new insights and understanding; and the moments when others needed my privileged voice to say but I was too afraid to offer it.

 

What was the prayer like that Shiphrah and Puah said or embodied in their moment of courage?

Was it an actual prayer?

A quiet glance of two women who were skilled at using to communicate in the presence of a powerful overseer?

Was one of them more confident?

Did they take long to consider their options, or was this just one of many intentional no’s they had perfected in a lifetime of resistance?

This text could not be timelier for our time, could it? When those in power are conducting a campaign of fear and distraction, we who are used to having some measure of power can easily get sucked up in the drama of chaos. Our leaders, in ancient times, and even today, come from underneath, from what Tracy Chapman called the ‘subcity.’ The clarity we need is less about power and more about faithfulness to the values we know to be true; and faithfulness to the God from whom our values emerge.

In just a minutes, Mike and Claire will sing a song that includes the phrase, ‘show me how big your brave is!”

Let us support one another in saying no, in order to live into a more powerful yes to God’s justice.

Let us support one another in doing it afraid. Doing it anyway.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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