On the Side of Life

Passage: Exodus 1:8-15
Date: October 6, 2019
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
Guest Preacher:

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In February of 2018, a woman named Isabella de la Houssaye was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer. Later that fall, she competed in – and completed – the Ironman competition in Kona. The Ironman, if you’re not familiar with it, is like a triathlon on steroids: a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a marathon – 26.2 miles of running. This spring this she and her daughter hiked Aconcagua, the tallest peak in the Andes, reaching the summit at just under 23,000 feet.

Of these final adventures coupled with a terminal diagnosis, she has said, “You’re not defeated until you stop trying.”

Many of you know Pat Schwiebert, who is our neighbor and lives with her husband John just a couple of blocks away at Peace House. Recently, Street Roots newspaper ran an article about Pat’s work at Sunnyside Community House. In 1981, Pat started the Hard Times Supper, serving a hot meal to up to 150 people experiencing homelessness or some sort of food insecurity. In those 28 years, she only missed three or four meals.

Pat and others served the last Hard Times Supper in mid-September. The Methodist Church, who owns the building, has other plans for that space. But in reflecting on these past three decades at Sunnyside, Pat said, “This work is not about helping; it’s about serving…” (https://news.streetroots.org/2019/09/20/last-supper-sunnyside-community-house)

Who inspires you?

These two women inspire me, as do the women in today’s story, Shiphrah and Puah. Their names may be unfamiliar to you, but if not for them, there would be no Moses, no Exodus, no promised land.

We don’t know that much about these women. We know that Shiphrah’s name is related to a word meaning “beautiful” or “pleasing.” We know that Puah’s name is related to a word meaning “girl-child,” a “niña” in Spanish. We don’t actually know if these midwives to the Hebrew women were themselves Israelites or Egyptians; that doesn’t seem to matter in this story.

The story of these two midwives gets the action going in the book of Exodus. The new Pharaoh doesn’t know Joseph or any of the Israelites living in Egypt. He refers to these people as “Hebrews,” a word used in the ancient Near East that refers to any group of outsiders who have no social status, own no land, and who endlessly upend the good order of things. They are considered “low-class folk” who are feared and excluded and despised.

In other words, this new Pharaoh doesn’t know the Israelite people but that doesn’t prevent him from not liking them or fearing them. He’s afraid they’re going to revolt. He devises a pretty poorly thought-out plan to kill all the baby boys; baby girls didn’t count. He calls a meeting with Shiphrah and Puah. That ends up being a bad idea.

The writer of Exodus tells us that these women feared God, fear in the sense of awe and reverence, and they knew that God, like themselves, was on the side of life. They knew God to be a creator. They themselves witnessed birth, saw life enter the world. They also knew the devastation of a baby’s death, so when Pharaoh ordered them to kill the baby boys, of course they rebelled. How could they not? To obey Pharaoh would be to go against everything they believed in; to carry out Pharaoh’s plan of the genocide of the Israelites would be to defy the God they revered.

So they disobey, but in a pretty sneaky way. They use Pharaoh’s own prejudice against him. “Oh Pharaoh, these wild, coarse, Hebrew women – they give birth so quickly we can’t get there in time.” Undoubtedly they told the other midwives of Pharaoh’s order and how to get around it. Life persists.

On Friday morning several of us from Westminster attended the Street Roots Family Breakfast. It was, as it always is, an inspiring event, and there was a definite theme. All of the speakers – from Senator Merkley to Desmond Hardison, a vendor for all of the newspaper’s 20 years – all of the speakers spoke of the need to acknowledge our common humanity and the call to care for one another.

Which is, I think, a call to be on the side of life. And that gets tricky, because “life” is hard to define. Life is more than mere existence; it’s more that taking breaths in and out. For Ironman competitor Isabella de la Houssaye, life is about pushing oneself to do what is hard. For Pat Schwiebert, life is about serving one another; for Shiphrah and Puah, it’s about dedicating oneself to bringing life into the world.

We might say that life is about shalom, that wonderful Hebrew word that is often translated rather anemically as “peace.” Shalom is that, but it’s also so much more.

Shalom is present when people experience physical well-being, when they have water and food and shelter.

Shalom is present when there are healthy relationships between nations, within and between societies, within and between families.

Shalom is present when there is not deceit but honesty; when there is not falsehood but blamelessness. 

Physical well-being, strong relationships, and behavior that is moral and ethical are things that point to life, because shalom is on the side of life too. (https://fullerstudio.fuller.edu/shalom-justice/)

The story of Shiphrah and Puah has swirled in my head and heart this week as I’ve been thinking about today being World Communion Sunday and the day we receive the Peace and Global Witness Offering. It’s quite a swirl, and I’ve wondered if connecting the story of the midwives to peace is a natural fit, or if it’s put a square peg into a round hole.

At first I thought I was trying too hard, but as I delved deeper into the story, and deeper into the meaning of shalom, it did all fit for me.

I interpret the story of the midwives as a small action, a deliberate choice to do what was right in the eyes of God. These women wanted life, abundant and whole, for the Israelite people. They could not change what anyone else did; they could not prevent Pharaoh from doing what he would, but they could say no to death and yes to life. And that yes allowed for the birth of Moses, who met God in a burning bush, who followed God’s call to lead the people out of slavery and into freedom.

Their small act brought freedom to a people. They acted in their relatively limited sphere – a corner of Egypt, helping a particular group of women deliver their babies. And in so doing, Shiphrah and Puah provided shalom – their defiance of Pharaoh led to the people escaping back-breaking labor, physical well-being; their defiance of Pharaoh allowed Moses to live, which led to a journey in the desert, where the people received the Ten Commandments – the moral base of their community; their time in the desert was a time of establishing their identity as Israelites, paving the way for strong relationships as a people who followed God.

Maybe we could say that these brave midwives were inspired by God, a God they feared and revered, and a God whose creative power they understood well. We might even say that as they midwived birth, they also midwived the power and intention of God, keeping the Israelite people alive until a leader arose from their midst.

We don’t know what happened to these women after this story. They are not mentioned again. If they were Egyptians, maybe they mourned when the angel of death took the lives of the Egyptian boys on that first Passover. If they were Israelites, maybe they continued as midwives for those forty years in the desert. We don’t know their entire story, but we know the impact of their actions.

So it might be for you and me, in the decisions we make or the ways we act that seem so small at the time, and yet – and yet the ripples of our decisions expand. Who is to say how that letter you signed, or that donation you gave, or that speech you made changed things for the better? Usually we don’t know those things till long after we acted. Sometimes we don’t find out the impact of our choices during our lifetime.

But today, I invite you to consider the ways in which you are on the side of life, the ways in which you pave the way for shalom, for the physical well-being of someone, for healthy relationships, for moral and ethical behavior.

I am sorry to say that Isabella de la Houssaye’s cancer has returned after a period of remission, and she’s undergoing chemotherapy again. She knows her time is limited. But she lives with this question, “In this moment, can I move forward?” 

In this moment, in this week, this year, this decade, can we move forward for shalom? I think we can, and we start at this table. In a few minutes, as we break bread and share the cup, we will join our Christian family around the world. We will remember the life of Jesus, and we will share life with one another, hoping for shalom for those who share the feast, and hoping for shalom for the world.