Sermon by Keith Menhinick
August 24, 2014
Regarding undocumented children in America, Homeland Security says, “How we treat the children, in particular, is a reflection of our laws and our values.” I am here to propose, How we treat the children is a reflection of our faith.
Children of color disproportionately oppressed by our laws and institutions; children of our city disproportionately starved by our food insecurity. Our treatment of children reflects our faith, and it reflects our treatment of all people, for all are God’s children. My question is—
How will we, the church of Jesus Christ, treat God’s children?
In today’s scripture, two Hebrew midwives find themselves confronted with the same question. They are Shiphrah and Puah, their names literally meaning beautiful and splendid, a posthumous naming that celebrates the beautiful and splendid work that they lived for as midwives.
Jewish Midrash tradition posits various interpretations of who these two women were. Perhaps the most powerful assertion of their identities is that these two women were Egyptian midwives, who crossed ethnic boundaries to help birth both Egyptian and Hebrew babies.
As midwives, they differ from doctors. Doctors operate within a more sterilized process, professionally distanced from the women and bodies they work with. Midwives labor with mothers and their bodies to help birth life. They pray and massage and sing to the mothers.
Women of ancient times believed the most effective birthing process was for a mother to sit upright on a stool with a hole in it. The midwife’s primary task was to wait on her knees beneath the mother and the stool and catch the baby.
One dry, hot day, the two humble midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, rush into a young Hebrew woman’s home, where they work together in a particularly challenging delivery.
Puah draws the curtains of the small, dusty hut, protecting the pregnant mother’s honor. With one hand, she massages the belly of the mother in labor, and with the other hand Puah clasps her arm. Breathe with me, Puah coos softly into the Hebrew woman’s ear. That’s it. Deep breaths.
By her knees, Shiphrah squats on legs grown strong from squatting for hours. Shiphrah tenderly touches the dark, strong thighs of the Hebrew woman who sits upright on the birthing stool. Before long, the head of a baby boy peaks through the crescent-shaped hole in the seat of the stool. Shiphrah’s hands are ready, years of practice guiding them to their exact positions, and she catches the newborn child.
Puah lifts the shears, cutting the umbilical cord. Shiphrah washes the baby in warm water, then rubs his delicate body with salts and lotions. Together, Puah and Shiphrah wrap the baby in swaddling cloths, and hand him to his tired, beaming mother.
The two midwives smile, proud of their work. They turn to leave, and on their way out of the dusty hut, an official of Pharaoh meets them with a demand to come to his courts.
Why would Pharaoh want to speak with them, two simple midwives? Their knees grow shaky and their palms grow sweaty with every step closer to Pharaoh’s palace. They soon find themselves before his ominous gaze. Pharaoh, perched on his jeweled throne, tells the midwives his fear.
The Hebrew people are too fruitful, and their numbers grow too fast. This Hebrew minority has become too mighty, and Egypt swarms not with Egyptians but with Hebrew children.
Shiphrah and Puah glance at each other through the corner of their eyes and shuffle their feet. They had watched as the past few years Pharaoh had grown increasingly paranoid and aggressive towards the Hebrews. They had watched as Pharaoh forced Hebrew men into labor camps, and appointed Egyptian gang-captains and task-masters to rule over them. Now Pharaoh speaks to them. What could Pharaoh want with us, they think.
Pharaoh ends his tirade against the Hebrews with a mandate to the midwives: “When you help the Hebrew women give birth, watch the birthing stool; if he be a son, put him to death, but if she be a daughter, she may live.”
Shiphrah and Puah leave Pharaoh’s courts horror-stricken. Put the baby boys to death? These midwives, whose very purpose was dedicated to ensuring the life of babies, could never cause the death of babies. But to disobey Pharaoh is to disobey the Egyptian gods, for the two are interchangeable, and disobedience certainly would result in death.
Back at home, the two midwives have almost no time to dwell on Pharaoh’s orders and their own fear. Immediately, a village boy runs to their door steps: “Help! My mother is having a baby!”
The midwives rush to the mother and after hours of labor, Puah, on her knees, catches a squealing, messy boy. Shiphrah and Puah look at that baby boy, and they see the eternities in his face.
Shiphrah and Puah know truths Pharaoh will never know. They have held the dying and the newly living, soothed the laboring pains of mothers, beheld the breath of life enter fresh bodies. The midwives know the truth about power, class, and ethnicity: as infants we are all born equal, and beautifully dependent on God.
Pharaoh’s mandate rings fresh in their minds, and in that moment, they get angry. Angry at a system, a Pharaoh, that would dare take life away from anyone. These midwives choose in that moment not to kill God’s children, but to catch them.
They will not follow an unjust system. They grow hot with anger, and their anger moves them to deliver even more babies. They will not waste even one child.
The poet Dana Smith captures the anger of Shiphrah and Puah’s brave civil disobedience by imagining these words from the midwives’ mouths:
“How could Pharoah’s
Death-threats touch us
When we touched the dark
Strong thighs of the lion
Of Judah’s women?
Had [Pharaoh] come near
Our wombs’ waters
We would have snapped
His spine, a wishbone
For our fingers. Which words
Of his could make
A desert flower?[No] Those [Hebrew] women commanded us
With an arched back, a raised Pelvis.”
The midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, question Pharaoh’s supremacy, in fact destabilize his power, by getting angry. Theirs is not an arbitrary anger, but an anger that moves them toward relationship, toward laboring with the oppressed to birth more life.
They work harder and deliver more babies than ever, and soon Pharaoh calls them back into his courts. “What have you done? You have let the children live!”
The midwives daringly respond back to Pharaoh, “No, indeed the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptians; they are rigorous and hardy. Before a midwife can get to them, they have already given birth and gone straight back to work in the fields.”
This deception to Pharaoh saves not only the lives of the midwives, but also all the lives of the baby boys that those midwives will continue to deliver.
In that male-dominated society, two midwives dare to labor with the oppressed—for life. Among the many baby boys saved and delivered by these midwives are Moses and Aaron, who soon grow up to be God’s gateways for leading the Hebrew people out of slavery.
We all know the Exodus story, a story of plagues and miracles and liberation. This Exodus story is a foundational narrative for us. We so often attribute the Hebrews’ freedom from slavery to Moses, but the original story-tellers knew that this defining story of liberation started with women. Two midwives, to be precise—Shiphrah and Puah.
These female midwives provide a model for us, the church, for our activism in the world.
Hebrew or Egyptian, we are all God’s children. We as the church must follow the midwives’ model; we must partner with all classes and ethnicities and religions, acting cross-culturally to labor with the oppressed. Like the midwives, we must fear God more than we fear humans, and catch God’s children in the world.
The children of this story become a microcosm of all oppressed peoples. The way we treat the children, particularly others’ children, is a reflection of how we treat all the vulnerable in our society. I also use the neglect of children as my example because that’s what makes me angry. You have to find your own anger. The midwives found their anger and risked their own safety for the justice of baby boys. Their story is a call to us to let our anger move us toward laboring with the oppressed.
What makes you angry? Who in this world needs you to kneel down and labor with them?
Young, unarmed black teenagers keep getting gunned down by white police officers just because they are black teenagers. Let us labor with them.
Women keep falling prey to male-dominated media and patriarchal constructions of gender and womanhood. Let us labor with them.
Immigrants and the poor keep getting scapegoated by politics and cast down under economic downturn. Let us labor with them
Lesbian, gay and transgender men and women keep getting restricted in their ability to marry and be who they are. Let us labor with them.
Young people of color keep getting channeled in the cradle to prison pipeline, filling our jails and lacking in our colleges. Let us labor with them.
Children and families here in the Triad keep starving each day from food insecurity and lack of access to resources. Let us labor with them.
Whatever injustice makes you angry, hear the call of Shiphrah and Puah: let the anger move you towards relationship and towards laboring with the oppressed. To labor with the oppressed for life is to labor with God for life.
The God we serve is like a mother in labor, who seeks to birth new joy and new liberation for all her children in our world. Don’t let God labor alone, but practice some midwife intercession.
The people under attack in this world are God’s children, and we are charged to act like midwives and catch them. Like the midwives, we must work across classes and ethnicities and cultures. And like the midwives, we must resist systemic pressure to hurt the weak and small by choosing instead to be on our knees, under the oppressed, laboring with them.
Don’t let God labor alone, for God needs our hands to catch the new life God is trying to birth every day.
Holy Spirit Go