A FEW GOOD MIDWIVES
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
August 24, 2014; 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Exodus 1:8-2:10; Romans 12:1-8
“Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.”
“Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.”
That line marks one of the great transitions in the life of God’s people: the end of one era, the beginning of another.
There’s no telling how many years had passed since the death of Joseph — that great co-leader of Egypt. He’d started out, of course, as the brash young boy, flaunting the coat of many colors his father, Jacob, had given him. His jealous brothers faked his death and sold him into slavery, to get rid of him. And there began Joseph’s remarkable rise: from the lowest of the low to the Pharaoh’s chief of staff.
In a season of famine, his brothers — not knowing it was him — knelt before him, to beg for food from Egypt’s well-stocked granaries. In an awe-inspiring act of forgiveness, the brothers’ victim became their savior. Joseph moved the entire clan down to Egypt. He installed them in comfortable homes, with a guaranteed income. Finally, it seemed like God’s ancient promise to their ancestor, Abraham, had come true. The Hebrews had found the Promised Land: and its name was Egypt.
For generations, they lived off the fat of the land. But then, that new Pharaoh came to power. He didn’t know Joseph, nor even remember him. There was no reason he could see to continue the Hebrews’ most-favored-nation status. He presented them with a bill for several generations’ worth of room and board. And when they could not pay it, he told them it didn’t matter. They could reimburse him with the sweat of their brow and the brawn of their backs. And so the Hebrews became slaves.
Their fall from grace probably didn’t happen overnight. The Bible telescopes the story into the decree of a single Pharaoh — but, more likely, it was a slowly-simmering resentment on the part of the Egyptian people. They grew to hate this privileged minority that seemed always to have the best of everything.
There are some parallels to the story of another people, who journeyed far from their homes in search of a better life. The Protestant Christians in some nations of northern Europe were mired in poverty and discrimination. Some of them, like the Pilgrims of Plymouth, had been forced to flee their homes. When the opportunity arose to settle a New World, to build in the wild, forest lands a Godly commonwealth, they jumped at it.
Back in those early years, they envisioned a country with no separation of church and state. Church discipline and civil law were one and the same. Roger Williams was exiled to the wilderness that became Rhode Island because of his unorthodox theology. Anne Hutchinson, a woman who dared to believe she knew as much about the Bible as any man, was likewise banished from the colony. The Quaker dissenter, Mary Dyer, was executed by hanging.
In time, the ruling Christian elite lost power in the New England colonies. Maybe that was a good thing, because of the ways they had abused it. By the time of the American Revolution, the founders of the new nation instituted a separation between church and state.
Informally, though, the Protestant churches known as the Mainline denominations — Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, and several others — enjoyed a privileged place in the American democracy. Public-school teachers used the King James Bible as their reading textbook. Christian prayers opened not only the school day, but in many places, the work day as well. Out West, the U.S. government paid missionaries to run schools and social service agencies: “Christianizing the Indian” was official government policy. In an effort to improve society, Christian churches led the movement to abolish slavery — and, later on, the unsuccessful attempt to ban the sale of alcohol known as “Prohibition.”
There was a time when no merchants would dream of opening their shops on Sunday. That day was the Lord’s Day: a matter not only of custom, but — in many communities — of law. Officially, there was separation of church and state in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century America. In practice, every official power structure leaned in the direction of Protestantism.
So, how did it come to pass that, when you drive to church here on Sunday, the parking places on the street are taken up by cars of adults playing basketball in the high-school gym? And how is it that our Sunday school has a hard time keeping kids, because when they get to a certain age, the football or soccer coach tells them if they miss a Sunday game, they’ve got to sit on the bench for the next one? Dreams of athletic glory and a full scholarship to college — however unrealistic they may be — trump Christian education in many parents’ minds, and their kids grow up barely knowing who Jesus is.
At the same time, the very thought of a business closing on Sunday now seems laughable, and the Christian employees of those companies find that coming to Sunday worship — however much they may want to — is simply no longer an option. The worship habit — the regular discipline of giving Sunday morning to the Lord, week after week — is shattered. And slowly, the ties of Christian community fray, and eventually break.
The words of Exodus, chapter one, sound chillingly familiar. We have no Pharaoh in this country, thank God, but the new powers-that-be still “do not know Joseph” — if, by “Joseph,” we mean that unspoken, unofficial consensus that government ought to promote the health of Christian churches because it makes for a strong democracy.
Now, I don’t mean to say we Christians in America have fallen into slavery, that we’ve somehow become the focus of active discrimination — because we’re not, and we haven’t. This is benign neglect, not oppression. There’s a lot of loose talk these days about imaginary “wars on Christmas” and fears that the teaching of Darwin’s theory of evolution equals persecution of conservative Christianity — but that’s a bunch of hooey. The First Amendment hasn’t been deleted from the Constitution last time I checked, and freedom of religion (thank God) is still a keystone of our legal system. Just because Christians long enjoyed a privileged place in American society doesn’t mean that privilege ever became a right. But still, church life feels very different, now, than it did just a few decades ago. The powers-that-be in our society “do not know Joseph.” And we who have long enjoyed pride of place have now lost that comfortable reality.
All this is very personal for me, because these changes that began generations ago are now picking up speed, like a snowball rolling downhill. I’ve been pastor here for 24 years, and this October I’ll have been ordained a minister for 31. When I was going to seminary in the late 70s and early 80s, there was still a lingering sense that the Christian ministry as a profession was a pillar of society. We ministers were asked to give invocations at public-school graduations in those days. Hospitals issued us ID badges as visiting clergy, and considered us adjunct members of the hospital staff. Members of the local Ministerium could show up at a town-council meeting and advocate for a cause, and the politicians would actually listen — not because we were more privileged, as individuals, than any other citizens, but because we represented important institutions they saw as pillars of community life.
Those days are gone. It’s over. The unofficial establishment of Christianity in general — and mainline Protestantism in particular — as the religion of America is history.
Now, we can rail against these changes. We can complain about them. We can wish the good old days would come back. We can simmer with rage at a store clerk who says “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” — as though that act of including religious diversity were somehow the symbol of an insidious, anti-Christian conspiracy — but, let me assure you, it’s not.
For whatever reason, the Lord is leading us to a place where there is no longer a Pharaoh who knows Joseph. When that happened to the ancient Hebrews, it was surely bewildering to them. And it is bewildering to many of us, as well. (Believe me, I feel your pain.)
So, how do we live into this new reality?
Believe me, I’ve been asking myself that question for some considerable time, now — and I know many of you have, as well. I do think, though, this first chapter of Exodus gives us a few pointers.
I’m speaking of the story of Shiphrah and Puah, the two midwives who saved the life of the Hebrew male children — and of the mother of Moses, who followed the bold idea that setting her baby boy in a pitch-covered basket on the River Nile was an act of responsible parenting.
In the Gospels, Jesus advises his followers to be “wise as serpents, innocent as doves” — and these bold women, many centuries before Jesus even walked the earth, embody that ideal.
In the story, Pharaoh — who’s portrayed as a bumbling fool — thinks he’s going to solve his Hebrew population-explosion problem by a little selective genocide. He gives the Hebrew midwives a horrifying command: when you deliver a baby boy, strangle him, but let the baby girls live.
This puts poor Shiphrah and Puah in an untenable position. The ethics of their profession teach them something very much like “Do no harm” — but this is the Pharaoh speaking, an absolute monarch who hangs onto power by calling himself a god who’s come to earth. How do you defy someone like that?
Fortunately, the midwives are smart enough not to defy His Imperial Majesty to his face. Instead, they resort to a little creative deception.
They tell a lie, in other words. They do it in service to a much higher purpose, the saving of innocent life.
“My Lord, Pharaoh,” they explain, in all earnestness. “We tried to obey your command. We really did. But, you know, being a midwife to the Hebrews is a kind of a no-show job. We just sit around all day doing nothing, because the Hebrew women are so strong, they give birth on their own. A pregnant woman’s out picking onions in the field, and when her time comes, she just pops that baby right out and goes back to the harvest without batting an eye. We never get a chance to get our fingers around the neck of a newborn boy-child, so how could we strangle him?
Pharaoh actually believes this lame excuse: which shows, beyond a doubt, he’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer. So, he tries a different tack. He says to all the Hebrew mothers, “When you give birth to a boy-child, just throw him into the river!”
As though that’s going to happen….
The Bible tells us, then, the story of Moses’ mother. She actually follows the decree of Pharaoh. She throws the newborn baby Moses into the river. (She just makes sure there’s a waterproof basket under him, when she does!)
Now, here’s where the storyteller turns lemons into sweet lemonade. He makes Pharaoh look even more foolish. Not only does he relate how the baby Moses’ life is preserved. He tells how Moses’ mother arranged for the boy to float into the very patch of water where Pharaoh’s daughter has gone for a swim. The princess is so taken with this adorable infant that she resolves on the spot to adopt him.
There’s only one problem. The kid needs to be fed. There was no baby formula in those days, so he needs what they used to call a wet-nurse. And who is it who just happens to be standing on the riverbank, but Moses’ big sister, Miriam? She tells of a woman she knows — her own mother, but she doesn’t let on — who’s recently had a baby, and can perform that essential service.
Pharaoh’s daughter puts Moses’ mother on the palace payroll, forthwith. Without any Egyptian being the wiser, the baby boy who was supposed to be drowned in the river not only survives, but grows up in the luxury of the royal palace itself, under the very nose of the man who’d ordered his execution — who comes to love him as an adopted grandson!
Those Hebrew women — the plucky midwives Shiphrah and Puah and Moses’ clever mother and her daughter, Miriam — are so delightfully subversive, they save the day!
I think these stories do have something to teach us, in these days when those in positions of power in our American society who still “know Joseph” are few and far-between.
Now, those women could have openly defied Pharaoh, but that would have been foolishness. They would have ended up dead, and the Hebrew children with them. They needed to think outside the box — and they did.
So, too, we in the church have got to think outside the box, when it comes to planning our common life. The forces that have snatched Sunday morning away from us, as the exclusive preserve of the churches, are just too powerful. We’re simply not going to convince the soccer moms (and dads), who are pulling their kids out of Sunday School, that their dreams of salvation-by-athletic-scholarship are about as likely to come true as those parents are to win the lottery (even though the odds are rather similar). And why would we want to, anyway? These parents are trying to do the best for their kids, the best way they know how. We don’t gain anything by telling them they’re bad parents — though some have, foolishly, tried! (That’s not exactly how to win friends and influence people.)
No, what we’ve got to do is develop alternative tracks of Christian education, offering kids multiple opportunities to learn, at different times. We’ve got to subvert that salvation-through-athletics theology, as the Hebrew women did with Pharaoh’s decrees — not oppose it directly!
And what about Sunday-morning worship, for all those people who have to work — or, for all those two-paycheck families, for whom private weekend family time is precious? We’ve got to think outside the box when it comes to worship opportunities, as well. I’m not sure what pattern is best for our church, but we need to get out there and start experimenting.
It’s never easy, this business of following Jesus, is it? But then, he never promised it would be. Neither did Paul. We heard him teach us, through our New Testament lesson this morning, not to be “conformed to this world.” Instead he says, “Be transformed, by the renewing of your minds!”
Transformation, in truth, is never easy. But sometimes, it’s essential. Change, or die — that’s the place we’re headed for as a congregation, my friends. Us, and every other mainline Protestant church in this great land of ours.
So, we’re looking for a few good midwives — male, female, it doesn’t matter. Let’s think creatively, live faithfully, and act boldly, when the opportunity to be just a little subversive presents itself.
We have a choice. We can regard our predicament as a cause for hand-wringing and complaining, for mourning the days of 1950s civil religion long-past — or, we can see it as something new in the process of being born, by the grace of God!
The choice is ours. In faith and boldness, let us make it!