Following in the Midwives' Trail
In the name of the giver of life who calls us to work for justice. Amen
I'm willing to bet you know that this week the American people are celebrating the passage, ratification, and enactment into law of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. And so are we, today, in worship.
Today, purely by chance, we have a happy convergence of the scripture assigned for the day and the moment in our national lives which we now celebrate.
You might well ask, "What does baby Moses have to do with the 19th Amendment and the struggle for freedom and justice from which that amendment emerged and to which its passage led?" But that very question arises from a misreading of the scripture we just heard. Moses' name doesn't even appear until the last sentence of this lengthy passage.
If I were determining section headings for the Bible, the one I would give to the passage we just heard is "The Midwives' Tale". For that is what it is: a tale of two birthing women birthing freedom for their people; a tale of their allies in the struggle for life, the struggle for freedom; a tale of two Hebrew midwives--Shiphrah and Puah--who are summoned by a Pharaoh fearful of losing his power; fearful of losing his reign.
Of what is that Pharaoh afraid? He's afraid of babies--babies not yet born; babies not yet even conceived. Babies--boy babies--whose very existence threatens that Pharaoh's power. So Pharaoh calls Shiphrah and Puah to his throne room and orders them to kill boys born to Hebrew women .
You and I, we know that two midwives could not possibly attend to all the births of the burgeoning Hebrew population without some help. Likely Shiphrah and Puah, in turn, summoned their assistants. But the order they gave--or maybe the request they made because what they were asking was tantamount to treason-- was not "Kill all the boy babiesl" but "Let all the babies live." How could they do otherwise? They were life-givers.
It took that fearful and somewhat dimwitted pharaoh some time to figure out what was going on. When he did, he summoned those midwives back to his throne room and demanded to know why they had disobeyed him, why they had let those Hebrew boys live.
But those Hebrew midwives were two clever sisters. They looked that fearful (and quite angry) Pharaoh in the eye and said, "...the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them." They managed--in the words of Ralph Ellison--"to change the joke and slip the yoke" by playing on the pharaoh's prejudices and thus obscuring the subterfuge.
Giving up on the midwives, the Pharaoh turned to his base--the Egyptian people--and fanning their fears, ordered them to throw every boy born to the Hebrews into the Nile.
What is remarkable about this Midwives Tale is that their life-giving, life-saving work does not end when they leave that throne room or even when they have cut the cord that binds baby to mother. Their work--their vocation--if you will--of bringing to life is taken up by wives and mothers and sisters and neighbors and friends and allies--women without whom Moses would not have lived to lead his people to freedom.
A woman, a Levite woman--an Israelite by blood if not by location, marries and takes the risk to have a child. She gives birth to a son and, like the God she worships, she sees him and observes that he is good---good but hardly safe. When she can no longer hide him, she puts him in a basket and places that basket holding her precious baby boy in the reeds beside the river Nile.
There, by the river's edge, Pharaoh's daughter discovers the baby. She's got things figured out. She knows that's a Hebrew baby. And nevertheless she persists. She rescues that baby.
The story doesn't end with the baby saved from the water. A sister--the baby's sister(her name is Miriam)--joins the life-saving work of the midwives by offering to take the baby to a Hebrew woman (his mother) to be nursed.
You and I know that Moses' story does not end there. It took years for it took years for the Israelites to gain their freedom; Moses to even catch a glimpse of the promised land; it took years for the people of Israel to find their home.
Like the people of Israel, you and I, and the women and men whose work we celebrate today know freedom doesn't come overnight; justice is not obtained in a moment.
The call for women's right to vote in this country was first issued in 1848 at the Seneca Falls Convention.
Between that moment and the passage of the 19th Amendment which we celebrate today, hundreds--likely thousands--of ordinary women (and some men too) buttonholed neighbors and friends, visited barbershops and beauty parlors, wrote letters and lobbied legislators, marched in parades throughout the country, and at what is now known as Black Lives Matter Plaza protested a President who seemed deaf to their cries for justice--a protest that landed many of them in jail. Mothers and daughters, teachers and students, black women and white women, Asian women and indigenous women and their male allies all working for the right to vote to be extended to all. And then, on August 18, 1920, the youngest member of the Tennessee legislature cast his vote for the 19th amendment thus sealing the deal. His mother made him do it.
The 19th Amendment, however, did not lead to full citizenship for all. Many Native Americans were not granted citizenship until 1924. It took even longer for Chinese and Japanese Americans to gain the right to vote. Black Americans in the South experienced virulent and often violent voter suppression before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 finally secured their right to vote. And still there was not liberty and justice for all.
We've made progress in the work for justice; we've made progress in t the fight for freedom. Clearly we haven't always gotten it right. But still we have work to do. And often we've gone way off course. But that call for justice--justice for all God's people, that drive for freedom endures here and throughout our world.
It behooves us--we who follow in the footsteps of women and men, ancient and modern, whose gaze was turned to justice to heed the words of a modern day prophet--Tracy Chapman:
All that you have is your soul.
Hunger only for a taste of justice;
Hunger only for a word of truth;
'Cause all that you have is your soul.