Here’s what I learned this week: sometimes being nasty is the same as being holy…and protest can be prayer.
I returned late last night from a long day at the women’s march in Washington, D.C. If you’re surprised to know I went, you should be. This past week here at church has been full of long days and late nights, important events and incredibly holy moments. It’s been the best of what church can be during a week that took many Americans from hope to despair and then back again. I was tired. I am tired. But I felt like my family should make the trip because it was clear to me that my children—now young adults—needed some help remembering the promise of our country, at least that’s what I told myself. The truth is, I did, too.
So we made the trek and joined many of you, and the hundreds of thousands of others here in our city and around the whole world—men, women, children of every race and age and ability, diversity as far as the eye could see (most wearing pink hats).
And here’s what happened to me when I did. Almost immediately after I emerged from the Metro station onto the sidewalk in downtown D.C., in that mass of people stretching as far as I could see, I began to feel something I haven’t felt in some time: hope.
I didn’t feel so alone or despairing anymore. I didn’t feel that our community was in the minority in our calls for the church to speak up. And I started to believe again that change might actually be a possibility, and that pushing back the darkness becomes a reality when all of us hold up our lights and raise our voices. Together.
Sometimes being nasty is the same as being holy, and protest can be prayer.
As you heard when Rev. Wright shared our exegesis this morning, the assigned lectionary gospel passage for today comes from the gospel of Matthew chapter 4. But before we get to the story of Jesus calling his disciples, I want to take a little homiletical detour this morning to remind you of a story from the Hebrew text.
In conversation with one of my rabbi colleagues this week, she mentioned that the Torah portion for Shabbat last week, the assigned passage in Jewish communities, comes from the book of Exodus, the first chapter, which tells the story of two Hebrew women, Shiphrah and Puah. I’ll read the story for you:
Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.’ Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor…. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites….
The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, ‘When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.’ But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, ‘Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?’ The midwives said to Pharaoh, ‘Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.’ So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong.
As I mentioned, our Jewish friends read this passage in worship last week, and as I thought about it, I realized that this passage is a rather fitting companion to our gospel text today.
Abraham’s descendants, remember, had settled in the land of Egypt during a terrible famine. You’ll recall that Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers when the family lived in Canaan, and through a series of events worked his way into the highest office in the land. After he created a system for stockpiling and distributing food, word spread through all the land that there was relief from the famine in Egypt.
Joseph’s family hadn’t seen him for years—they thought he was dead—so imagine their surprise when the famine forced them to go to Egypt looking for food . . . and they ran into Joseph. At the urging of the Pharaoh—Joseph moved his entire reunited family to Egypt, where he was a highly respected government official.
And life was sweet.
But a new chapter in the story of the Hebrew people was about to begin, and the words seem appropriately ominous at the start of the passage today: “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph….”
When the events chronicled in Exodus chapter 1 took place, four hundred years had passed since Joseph had been a prominent figure in Egyptian leadership; generations had come and gone; that was then and this was now, and now Joseph’s family had grown large and numerous and had been relegated to a different strata of society—they were slaves forced into working to support Pharaoh’s building program.
Every good story has a crisis around which it unfolds, and this was it. Pharaoh was worried about the growing influence of the Hebrews, so he inaugurated a plan of genocide. No more Hebrew boys, he declared. They would die at birth until the Egyptians could get this threat under control and keep the Hebrews contained. It was a dark and fear-filled time for the Hebrew people. And then we meet Shiphrah and Puah, two women whose names you probably don’t hear often in the history of organized movements pushing society toward change.
Almost 30 years ago, a young Harvard history scholar took a trip to the archives at the State Library in Augusta, Maine. Laurel Ulrich was researching a court case that had some relevance to her studies of early American women. It was that day on a back shelf in those dusty archives that Ulrich stumbled upon two linen-bound volumes of faded ink, the handwritten diaries of a woman named Martha Ballard.
Never heard of her? It wouldn’t surprise me.
Martha Ballard was a midwife who lived in the wilds of Maine right after the Revolutionary War and kept a diary from 1785 until 1812. In her diary she recorded a whole lifetime of risky behavior that saved life after life after life and welcomed over 1000 babies into the world. She did crazy things like crossing the Kennebec River at the crest of the spring flooding, wading through waist-deep snow and climbing mountains of ice to reach her patients, and at the age of seventy-seven bent her swollen knees onto the bare back of a horse to reach a woman in labor.
When she discovered these diaries, Ulrich found her academic inspiration. And after eight years of carefully studying the life of Martha Ballard, Ulrich published a book in which she wrote the words: “Women who behave rarely make history.”
Ulrich was writing about Martha Ballard, of course, but she could just as easily have been writing about the lives of the two Hebrew midwives, by virtue of their gender automatically marginalized, insignificant. It’s a curious way to begin the great epic story of Exodus, with two unimportant women. But before Moses, the great liberator of the Hebrews, was even born, there were these women who chose to misbehave in quiet yet subversive ways that set into motion the very first sparks of possibility for Exodus, for salvation, for life.
Shiphrah and Puah were midwives. In every society there are women who take this role, accompanying a woman through the intense labor of delivering a baby. They advised on pregnancy problems; they mopped sweaty brows; they caught babies and cut cords and stopped bleeding. They were there at the very beginning of many little lives.
Pharaoh knew this, of course, and thought it would be most expeditious to stop the proliferation of the Hebrews right where it started, so he ordered the two midwives Shiphrah and Puah to kill any male babies born to Hebrew women. It was a simple plan of genocide.
But the midwives—they were having none of it. Shiphrah and Puah concocted the most ridiculous story of resistance for the Pharaoh . . . “You know those Hebrew women! They are so hardy that, no matter how fast we hurry, it’s so weird: we can never get to them before their babies are born!” It worked: Pharaoh was stumped. What did he know about giving birth?
It seems a little humorous to us now, but just think about what it would have felt like for Shiphrah and Puah. Trembling and fearful they must have been, going before supreme Pharaoh with a fabricated excuse for not following his orders? Surely they knew that with the flick of his wrist he could send them to their deaths.
Throughout the epic story of our faith we’re taught about brave heroes who rise to prominence and leadership: Abraham and David, Esther and Moses. But it’s interesting to note here that Shiphrah and Puah didn’t act out their resistance alone; they did it together. The original Hebrew text here uses very rare plural feminine pronouns; these are found only in this Torah portion from Exodus chapter 1 and in the book of Ruth. The midwives worked together to bring about God’s justice.
You’ll recall that there’s a crisis framing the story in Matthew’s gospel for today, too. In extreme political conflict, with Roman occupation a reality for the people of Galilee, there had been a lone voice crying out in the wilderness against oppression: John the Baptist. John, the unlikely prophet who had the courage to preach a controversial message before Jesus even began his ministry, and who had blessed and baptized Jesus for the work ahead of him. Well, Matthew reports that John had been arrested; that the Roman government was getting nervous; and that there was nobody else out there preaching the message: “Repent, turn around, go the other way!” So Jesus decided it was time for him to speak up. He withdrew from the crowds and gathered his courage and started to preach.
But he had barely begun when, walking past the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew and James and John. They were fishers in that little lakeside village, tending their boats and their nets and trying to survive with the crippling poverty and injustice all around them. Jesus invited them to join him. “Come on, let’s put our voices together!” They heard Jesus’ message and dropped everything to follow.
Perhaps Jesus took a page out of the playbook of protestors like Shiphrah and Puah, and so many others who had gone before him when he began his ministry by inviting others to come along. As he did, he spoke of repentance and love and healing and justice for all the people, and when they heard him, their downcast hearts began to hope for the first time in a very long time. And Jesus and the disciples kept going, Matthew tells us, all throughout Galilee, preaching the gospel, healing people who were sick, spreading a revolutionary message of love, inviting others to join in, starting a movement. Together.
You could say that it was kind of like a years’ long protest march. Everywhere Jesus went he preached his revolutionary message, and everybody—people who had lived in desperation for so long—began to see that there is so much more hope to be found when we show up in this world…together.
We are living in a critical time in the history of our country, and the world. Perhaps some of us are waking up for the first time ever as we live through our modern American version of “Now a new king arose over Egypt…”. But the mandate for people of faith and good conscience to come together to speak for love and justice and righteousness is nothing new. Many have gone before us, showing us exactly how it’s done.
You and I may not have the power of a Pharaoh or the resources of a president, even. But we know how to raise our hands together in the service of God to say no. No to oppression and death and injustice and exclusion. And yes, yes to a God who offers love and salvation, justice and peace . . . for all people.
Laurel Ulrich wrote, “Women who behave rarely make history,” but she wouldn’t have been the first to express the conviction that ushering in the kingdom of God in a world crying for justice is not going to happen with the rise of a new king or prime minister or mayor or president.
No, it will happen through steady, determined, subversive acts of faith by little people like you and me, joining to together in conviction and action.
Out on the national mall yesterday in the middle of throngs of people wearing pink knitted hats, here’s what I learned: sometimes being nasty is the same as being holy…and protest can be prayer.
I wonder if, 2000 years from now, someone will read a grand story of God’s faithfulness that begins with people like you and me—just regular people longing for hope and justice and peace—and somehow finding the courage to join our lives and raise our voices like Jesus taught us…together?
May it be so.