What if I were to tell you that what we do this week could change the world? Would you believe me?
Would you believe me or doubt me? We’ll never know, of course, unless we try.
Two women once made a decision, took a chance, and changed the world. It was simultaneously a small gesture and an heroic act. They disobeyed. And because of their little but risky act of disobedience, God was able to rescue Israel from oppression. Their names are Shiphrah and Puah. We often talk about people who are icons in the biblical narratives and unfortunately those in the background are ignored. Which is a shame, because they all have something to teach us.
The beginning of Exodus starts on a chilling note. A ruler, wishing to solidify his political base, identifies a common enemy, a scapegoat to blame for whatever current problems plague society. Been there many times playing the blame game. Blame the immigrants for the Covid crisis. Blame the welfare moms, those on benefits, for our economy. Blame the gays, the ‘undeserving’ poor, and the Muslims for all the divisions. Blame them all for all the problems we are facing.
One of the chief manifestations of sin is our habit for defining ourselves over and against others and in the process denying others their essential humanity, their status as
beloved children of God.
This time around, it’s the ancient Israelites. They get fingered by a Pharaoh who has conveniently forgotten that for generations the Israelites he labels as possible terrorists had
been considered allies and honoured guests. And so, he first enslaves them and then turns to even darker means, telling the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, to kill all the Hebrew baby boys that are delivered. (Ironically, it is the girls, who are apparently of no account to Pharaoh, that he should fear the most, as first these two women, and then three more — Moses’ Hebrew mother and sister and Pharaoh’s Egyptian daughter — who are his undoing.)
But back to Shiphrah and Push; they refuse. They do not kill the boys. They lie to Pharaoh, using their own stereotypes back against them — telling Pharaoh that the muscular Hebrew women give birth too quickly, delivering the babies before the midwives arrive on the scene. It’s a courageous act of civil disobedience that changes history, for one of the boys that is spared will be called Moses and he will lead the Israelites out of Egyptian captivity. He will deliver God’s law to the Israelites and bring them to the promised land. And it all starts here, with two women willing to say “no” to an act of injustice.
I doubt very much they thought they were changing the world. But they were, just by being faithful, by following the dictates of their hearts, by heeding the call of conscience. Andy Andrews in a little book called The Butterfly Effect catalogues the extraordinary impact of simple and courageous efforts. Except when you go back, you can never really tell which efforts made the biggest difference. So, for instance, Andrews points out how inter-connected our actions are, creating an unforeseen butterfly effect that can ripple across time and space to affect the lives of millions.
The things we do this week — our actions, decision, choices — will, in fact, ripple out with consequences foreseen and unforeseen, for good or for ill, for the health or damage of the
world. That question isn’t whether, but what… What will we do this week to make a difference in the world? Some of these actions may be big, bold, and courageous. Others may be small, hardly noticeable. And yet they all have the potential to ripple out, affecting countless lives.
In today’s reading it’s Shiphrah and Puah, quietly standing up to a bully and tyrant. Who knows whom it will be today, this week, this year. What would you do if I told you that what you do this week could change the world? What if I told you that because of that small and valiant gesture the world will change for the better.God’s intervention into the crisis, however, comes not in dramatic, sweeping events, but in small ones, the birth of a little baby, the cleverness of midwives, and a vulnerable basket-boat floating on the water.
Even the people who are central to this story are among “the little ones” in society, in this case, the women. The midwives evade the order of Pharaoh out of compassion for the Hebrews (and a fear of God, an interesting way to describe their motive), the mother hides her baby and then entrusts him to God in a carefully prepared fragile boat, a big sister watches over her baby brother as he floats along, and a foreign (pagan) princess has mercy on a child she surely recognizes as a Hebrew baby, condemned to death by her own father and the very power structure that shelters her.
Only two of these women are named (even this is unusual in Scripture, where women tend to be nameless), but all of them face danger, all of them take risks, and all of them work around and beneath those who hold much more power than they do, at least in the eyes of the world. Where is God in this story? Clearly, God is at work through those “little people”, working around the edges and under the heel of power that has gone bad. Scholar after scholar insists that it’s God’s compassion, God’s faithfulness, God’s tender care that are extended by the compassion, faithfulness and care of the courageous women, including, mysteriously, even the pagan princess. (God doesn’t even seem to care much about religious boundaries or categories.)
In this Exodus passage, God intervened through the actions of bold midwives refusing to be party to genocide, through the actions of a desperate mother and vigilant sister, and through the compassion of a stranger. What if I were to tell you that what we do this week could change the world?
Acknowledgment and Resources
Binkley, C. G. & J. M. McKeel. Jesus and his Kingdom of Equals. An International Curriculum on the Life and Teaching of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2001.
Duncan, G. (ed). Seeing Christ in Others. An Anthology for Worship, Mediation and Mission. Norwich. The Canterbury Press, 1998.
Progressive Religious Thought Brisbane, 2009/2010.
Sorrill, UUA Worship Web. Boston. www.uua.org/spirituallife/worshipweb/; email@example.com