A Sermon by the Rev. Elizabeth Costello
Associate Rector of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church
In Fort Washington, Pennsylvania
Delivered on Sunday, August 27, 2017
In 2015 a bus in northern Kenya was assailed by Al-Shabaab, an Islamic terrorist group. The bus was filled with Christian and Muslim passengers, mostly women. Knowing that the terrorist group wanted to kill the Christian passengers, the Muslim passengers shared their Islamic articles of clothing, before the militants boarded the bus. The two groups were indistinguishable from one another.
When the militants boarded the bus, they demanded that the Christians and Muslims separate. The passengers refused, and everyone began chanting, “Shoot us all, or not at all!” After a long standoff, the militants left.
In this morning’s reading from the book of Exodus, we heard about the moral courage of two Hebrew midwives: Shiphrah and Puah.
The Egyptian King told the midwives to do the unthinkable, to kill a mother’s newborn if it was a boy. As women entrusted by their community to help usher in vulnerable life in a mother’s greatest moment of vulnerability, killing an infant, regardless of its sex, was unthinkable. And so, with great moral courage, the midwives outsmarted the king and allowed all babies, regardless of sex, to live.
The context in which the midwives acted is one that we have heard of before. We’ve read about this context leading up to the horrors of Nazi Germany and the Rwandan genocide. We’ve watched it in books turned to movies, like The Hunger Games. Their political backdrop being: ruling class fears being outnumbered by a rapidly growing working class. Something must be done to stop them, so the ruling class doubles down, systematically oppressing and even destroying them.
In this story, the Egyptians ruled over the Israelite-working class. Their fear of losing what they valued most, power and privilege, drove them to act cruelly. And in their cruelty, they lost what was more precious than power and privilege: their humanity.
The Egyptians tried to rob the Israelites of their strength, their spirit, and even their future. They introduced harsh working conditions. Forced them to build their cities and roads. Forced them to tend and to harvest their fields. They even had them build supply cities where they could store food, water, and military supplies, while the Israelites went to bed hungry. In their blind fear, the Egyptians went so far as to order the annihilation of all Israelite baby boys. Knowing full well that without men, Israel’s future work force and military would be exterminated.
To carry out this order, the king of Egypt went to the midwives. Fearing God, the midwives knew that they could not take a human life. So, they let the baby boys live. When the king noticed the influx of male babies, he asked them why they let them live. The midwives played dumb and inept, and said, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.”
We know the rest of the story well. Moses was one of the babies and his mother hides him for three months, until she cannot hide him any longer. Desperate, she puts him in a basket and placed him in the river. His sister, Miriam, risking being seen, followed the basket down the river ensuring his safety. The Pharaoh’s daughter intercepted the basket and cared for him as her own flesh and blood. The great redemption of this story is that Pharaoh’s wife will hire a Hebrew woman to nurse the baby, and that woman will be Moses’ mother.
Did Shiphrah or Puah have any idea what they were doing? Did they have any idea that one of the babies that they saved would one day save them? Did Moses’ mother or his sister know who Moses would become? Moses, whose life quite literally depended on the moral courage of these women, would show the same moral courage to save their lives, and the lives of the Israelites. Had the midwives known that by ushering in each new life, they would midwife the new thing that God was birthing in their midst?
We read about moral courage in history. Irena Sendler comes to mind. If you will recall, Irena was a Catholic Polish nurse who worked for social services in Warsaw, Poland. She is credited with saving 2,500 Jewish babies and children from Nazi death camps. She smuggled these babies and children out in ambulances, trashcans, and supply bags from the Warsaw Ghetto. She changed their identities and placed them with Polish families and convents. Her moral courage saved 2,500 lives.
It was not without cost. When the Nazis found out what Irena was doing, she was sent to prison, tortured, and given the death sentence. Though she was tortured, she refused to give up any of the names of the children or those who helped her. She escaped from prison, and lived a long life, passing away in 2008.
As Christians, we are called to be morally courageous. My guess is that the passengers on the bus in Kenya, Irena Sendler, or the counter-protesters in Charlottesville never expected to confront the level of adversity that they faced. But when their moment came, they knew it, and they stood up for God’s people, and in so doing, stood up for God. During the worst of times, they refused to lose their humanity.
I don’t know what it will look like for you to live a morally courageous life for God. For each one of us it will look different. As our Epistle reminded us, we each have our own gifts as part of the many-membered body of Christ. Our gender, race, profession, family of origin, and faith gives us access to different worlds. And each Sunday we gather as Christ’s one body, and are sent out as a diffuse body into our many worlds. In our worlds, we have a thousand mini-moments to act courageously for God. I wonder what your moment will be?
This week we had Vacation Bible School. The theme for VBS was being a hero for God. On Tuesday, the focus was on having courage for God. At the end of the day, the children were asked how could they be courageous for God. One child, Hudson, stood up and said, “You can stand up for people who are bullied. When people are making fun of someone for being different, you can stand up for them.” Another child said, “You can feed people who are hungry.” And another little girl, Charlotte, said, “When you see people who are sad, you can help them feel better.” These children are not the future of the church, they are the church. And I don’t know about you, but I am encouraged that we are in good hands.
Jesus calls us to have courage. Yes, we will be like Peter and we will fail. One day we will confess Jesus as the Messiah and the next deny him. But Jesus never stops believing in us, he never stops calling us to stand up for God’s people, for when we do, we stand up for Jesus.
May we have the moral courage of the midwives Shiphrah and Puah and do the right thing, come what may. May we nurture the life that is before us, knowing that as we do, we are helping to birth the new thing that God is doing in our midst.