Series: August 2023
Speaker: Rob McClellan
"The Creativity of Midwives"
1I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect.
3For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
8Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10Come, 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.” 11Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites. 14and 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.
15The 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.” 17But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” 19The 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.” 20So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. 21And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22Then 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.”
1Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman.2The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. 3When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. 4His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.
5The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. 6When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him, “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. 7Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” 8Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 9Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. 10When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.”
“The Creativity of Midwives”
“I drew him out of the water.” It’s a phrase that hits eerily close to home, as we have watched the water rise in Southern California and Mexico, as we have seen people take to the water in Maui as a last resort in escaping the horrific fires. In our story, the one who is drawn out of the water is named Moses. His name means, “The One Who Draws Out” because one day Moses will draw his people out of the cesspool of oppression.
Moses is born into utter hopelessness. His people are slave-laborers. Because their taskmasters fear they are growing too numerous and powerful, Pharaoh enacts a policy to kill all newborn males. The goal is twofold - suppress their birthrate and press every bit of hope out of them. This should remind you of what happens in the Gospel of Matthew around Jesus’ birth. Matthew essentially retells the story of Israel, especially the Exodus, through Jesus.
How can we relate? We are not slaves. By many measures, we have it good, though as I say that I want to step back so as not to assume your circumstances, what you carried in with you today seeking solace, inspiration, companionship, or just quiet. I have found that many who face no material threats still carry withing them a level of existential worry these days. I mentioned the fires and the floods around the world. After the earthquake in Southern California, I half-expected frogs to be next. We have friends who after a particularly bad fire season left California for the Midwest because they just couldn’t take the smoke, the threat to property and worse, only to be blanketed in smoke this summer from the fires in Canada. Some things hang heavy.
As school gets underway again, I think about what our children carry. I spent some time on sabbatical observing the YMCA camp I grew up attending. They do such a good job of spiritual development that I wanted to see what could be gleaned. During a long conversation, one of the former directors told me his colleagues from camps around the country all said that the year after COVID was the hardest of their careers. Kids were unsettled. They had experienced danger on a level unlike before, and they are increasingly aware of not only what’s happening in the world, but that those in positions of power may not be up to the challenge.
All of this generates anxiety, despair, hopelessness. I don’t want to project it onto you. That’s surely not why you came here. Do you feel it? If so, it’s important to name it, for once you name it, acknowledge it, it instantly becomes more manageable.
Speaking of what feels unmanageable, overwhelming, when you hear experts interviewed about environment, they’re always asked one question. It’s the question many of us hold. “Where do you find hope?” Katharine Hayhoe is an atmospheric scientist, well-published; she’s an endowed chair at Texas Tech University. She’s also an evangelical Christian and married to a pastor. It’s not a surprise that she, in particular, gets asked the hope question.
I have heard Hayhoe interviewed a number of times and when the question inevitably comes up, she offers a refreshingly good response. She essentially says hope isn’t something you find; it’s something you make. Don’t wring your hands looking for it. Roll up your sleeves and start working for it. Hayhoe maintains that hope flows from action, and everybody has action available to them. It’s very freeing, very empowering. Start with action. Whether you start to make different choices in your own life, you start to engage organizations on the local level, or you get involved in wider campaigns to get people in powerful positions in all sectors to address this issue, the involvement, the engagement, the bits of progress you see, that grows hope. You get your agency back, your energy back and you don’t have to go looking for hope because you’re making it, for you and your neighbor, the neighbor Jesus teaches us to love as ourselves, not as much as but as ourselves.
Everyone can act. No, everyone doesn’t have the same impact, but everyone has some measure of choice available to them. Consider the midwives in our story. They’re named Shiphrah and Puah, we should remember them. To Pharaoh’s decree they say, “Yes,” with their mouths, but “No”, with their actions. They defy this law because they are in touch with a greater law rooted in divine love. This should remind you of what Paul says in our other reading today, about not conforming to the ways of this world because you are connected to a greater way. Because they are connected to that root system, Shiphrah and Puah are able to tap into a greater strength. We might call it the strength of God, which is always there to be tapped into. Shiphrah and Puah do not kill the boys. They take them in, shelter them, and protect them even at their own risk.
Along the way, a woman, this one nameless like so many, gives birth. When the boy grows too large to hide, she doctors a basket to put in the river, filling in the gaps with bitumen and pitch. She’s building him a mini-ark, as a long-shot to carry him to safety. When I think of this story, I can’t help but think of a woman I know who as a baby was forced to flee her Asian country which suffered under tyrannous rule. Her mother had to wrap her in a blanket and cross a river in the dead of night, praying she would not cry out, lest they be caught or shot. This stuff is still happening. To this day, that baby now a mother, does not swim. We carry so much.
The woman in our story places the baby in the basket ark. The child floats downstream only to be picked up by the daughter of Pharaoh himself. She allows herself to feel compassion for him and takes him. In a beautiful twist it is the boy’s mother who is summoned to be his nurse. This boy who was drawn out grows up to draw out his people. Moses.
It is an impossible story and that is its power. It redefines what we think is possible. That’s what action can set into motion. When you act, you make a way, you make your own hope. Try it. Try it humbly, knowing you may need to refine and adjust as you learn more. Keep an open mind but allow a sense of empowerment to flow back into your body. Hayhoe says it’s through acting that movement is restored to our otherwise paralyzed bodies.
How do we know where to begin? This is where we need to get creative. Creativity allows us to do something remarkable even with unremarkable tools. Moses’ mother saves her child and her people from a powerful empire with a basket and some goo! Creativity is not a finite resource. It cannot be denied you. It need not follow the laws of economic scarcity, but it does take some cultivating.
Kate Bowler is a professor at Duke Divinity school who had written powerfully about her bout with cancer as a young woman and has gone on to have a great following as she engages any number of topics. In an interview with Elizabeth Gilbert, she said, “Something somewhere along the way just gets pressed out of us. Maybe it’s wonder. Maybe it’s creativity. Maybe it’s a little bit of joy. But maybe those are the very things we need when life goes off the tracks.” Bowler trusts in these traits, in these tools, what I might call these disciplines. She describes herself as an “incurable optimist” remarkable because this is a woman who faced a ferocious cancer at an early age and got famous for writing a book that systematically dismantles unhelpful Christian platitudes like, “Everything happens for a reason.” Bowler’s not operating in the clouds. She is rooted in the grittiness of real life, and she knows when it comes down to it what really matters, what really helps.
It turns out it’s things we are taught to think we don’t have time for—wonder,creativity, joy—because we need to get to wo, so say our taskmasters external or internal, are the very things we need if we are going to do our real work in this world. Oppression works by trying to robbing you not only of material means but of wonder, creativity, and joy because those things lead to possibility. You are not wasting your time when you cultivate them in your life; you are a) delighting in creation, in creatureliness, your aliveness which is worship and therefore holy, and b) equipping yourself to face the very things that your tired, stressed-out self would find intractable. Invest in these things, surround them with prayer, and trust where they lead, where God will lead you through them. That’s what the midwives did and their legacy, their gift to us, does.
Go down to the water’s edge and in your reflection remember we are a people who know how not to drown, who come from those who knew what it was like to be drawn out of the water and know their own capacity for drawing others out into freedom and new life. That will give you the strength to make some hope.