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Profiles in Courage

posted Oct 30, 2018, 5:18 AM by Cameron Hubanks   [ updated Oct 30, 2018, 5:19 AM ]

Profiles in Courage


Those of you having attained a “certain age” (that is, at least as old as me!), know that the sermon title this morning – Profiles in Courage – is not at all original.  In 1957, then U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy released a book of 8 senatorial profiles – 18th and 19th century political leaders who had the courage to go against popular opinion in the country and prevailing sentiment in their own parties – to take political stands which they believed to be morally essential.  In each case, this stand had a cost – usually loss of election.


Our text this morning presents us with a far more ancient example of political and social courage – the determination to do right even at great personal risk.  It is unfortunate that the names of Shiphrah and Puah are probably unknown to even one percent of Christian church-goers, for these two women exemplify the sort of moral integrity and determined toughness to stand in the face of pressure to conform and instead live according to their deepest values.


Come with me into a rehearsal of this story.


In our year-long series of the “big stories of the Bible” we’ve come to the place where the descendants of Abraham – the one to whom God had promised posterity and blessing – have achieved one of those promises (they have multiplied greatly – there are many of them), but certainly not the other (instead of experiencing blessing and being a blessing – they are slaves).  


A quick review:  Abraham and Sarah eventually became parents to Isaac.  It was an untimely birth in all imaginable aspects – Sarah had deemed the promise of a child in her old age to be so absurd as to have laughed when God repeated the promise to her husband, Abraham.  And to Sarah’s profound credit and gracious humility, when the child was born – when she was 90 years old! – she named him laughter!  A name, I think, of delightful consequence.  For certainly she and Abraham laughed with delight at this child’s birth, but it is plain that with this name she was poking a bit of fun at herself.  It is easy to imagine that every time she stepped out of their tent to call the boy in for a nap, or for a meal, and called “Isaac” (which sounds like the word for “laughter”) she would be reminded of her own laughter at God’s promise and probably wince a bit and say to herself, “By God’s grace I will be more faithful – I will be more trusting.”  I think there is a reminder here to each of us to be more humble in recalling our own failures to truly trust God – rather than our smarts, or our wealth, or our heritage.


In any case, Isaac grew and eventually he and his wife Rebekah had twins – the famous siblings Esau and Jacob.  Jacob, it is clear, was a scheming scoundrel, but God loved him in spite of his failings, and eventually he (by his 2 wives, Leah and Rachel, as well as the two servants of his wives) – gave birth to twelve sons (and, we should add, at least one daughter – an apparently ravishingly beautiful girl named Dinah, whose story is tragic, but we haven’t time for that today).  I’ll leave it to you to speculate on the family rivalries, jealousies, and intrigue that result when one man has children by two wives AND additional children by the servants of those two wives.  In any case, eventually the majority of those 12 sons sold their second youngest sibling into slavery.  Joseph – the one sold into slavery – was perhaps insufferable, but he was also smart and resourceful and at least eventually learned to depend on God.  Again, to make another long story short, Joseph ended up in Egypt where his intelligence and skill at interpreting dreams caused him to become a top aide to the Pharaoh.  In that position, he eventually became the savior of his family – of those very brothers who sold him into slavery.  One of the most famous lines of Genesis is uttered by Joseph when his brothers learn that the one they treated so horrifically bad is the one who has saved him.  They expect retribution and instead Joseph says, “You meant it for evil, but God used it for good.”


So, in the midst of a terrible famine, Joseph (and the Pharaoh he served) welcomed his father and brothers and their wives and children and servants to Egypt and to salvation from starvation.  And all of them – 70 souls in total – were welcomed as honored guests.


But things change over time.  Eventually Joseph died and so did the Pharaoh for whom he had worked.  And as generations passed the leadership of Egypt passed to a Pharaoh who had no memory of Joseph.  All he knew was this horde of despicable shepherds who lived on the wrong side of the tracks (out in Goshen).  These Hebrews bred like rabbits and while the Egyptians were delighted to take advantage of them and use them as forced labor for their public-works projects and over time eventually abuse them and dominate them so that eventually they were nothing more than slaves.  


But even though they were enslaved, still they had more and more and more children.  Pharaoh – being a shrewd man – worried that this horde could become unmanageable.  He worried that some foreign enemy might conspire with the Hebrews and there would be an uprising with devastating consequences for political and social stability in his realm.  So, a plan was devised – kill all the male children.  This act of savagery would demoralize the people and it over time reduce the potential for armed rebellion and there would still be young women to work as slaves.  


It’s an obviously cruel plan – a genocidal plan, to be honest.  But Pharaoh was undoubtedly a ruthless man with little concern for niceties like morality, respect and justice.  And of course, like all despots, Pharaoh would need the cooperation of “smaller people” to implement this plan.  This is, of course, the way it always is with ruthless and murderous leaders.  They rarely dirty their own hands with their immoral plans, they call on those who adore them to blindly follow orders and do the necessary evil.  In Pharaoh’s case, he decided to implement his plan through the midwives who attended to Hebrew women in the final days of their pregnancies – through Shiphrah and Puah.  


But Pharaoh didn’t count on one important thing – that there might be folk in his realm who answered to a higher authority than to the leader of the country.   It turns out that Shiphrah and Puah were not willing to disobey God in order to obey the Pharaoh.  When called to account, they invented a laughable little story – the Hebrew women aren’t wimps like your women, Pharaoh.  By time we get to the pregnant women, they are already nursing their little ones – boys or girls.  


Here in the first chapter of the second book of the Bible we encounter one of the most repeated themes of the Bible – that God loves and looks out for the powerless and that those with power are called to care for and protect those who will otherwise be used and abused.  


A few months from now we’ll encounter a story from the beginning of Jesus’ own ministry where he announces that the core of his ministry of salvation is the offer of relief to those who are sick, who are blind, who are imprisoned, who are lame, who are poor.  It is probably the central statement of what Jesus is all about – about offering life to those who suffer – those who suffer at the hand of disease and disaster AND those who suffer at the hand of the powerful.  


There is a foolishness that circulates among church people in our country – a foolishness which suggests that there are things the church ought keep silent about – things like money and social issues and politics.  I understand how controversial these things are, but the idea that the church should shy away from them in essence neuters God and relegates God to the sidelines of that which we know are really the important questions of life – questions of wealth and power – questions of social justice and moral values. 


When we began this series on the “Big Stories of the Bible” we began with creation.  Which begs an uncomfortable question:  How much of the universe did God actually create?  Did God only create the parts of the universe that are nice and not very controversial?  Does God have opinions about money and power and the ways people use and abuse other people?  It’s pretty clear that God created every single aspect of the universe – every single aspect of human endeavor – and that when the church closes its eyes to certain aspects of common life, we betray our unwillingness to follow God into the really important questions of life.  It is clear that God has strong feelings about the use of wealth and about social justice and how the powerful either empower the weak, or else keep them powerless and unhealthy and enslaved.  If God has strong feelings about these matters, then so must the church and so must we.


Shiphrah and Puah are first in a long line of Biblical characters who challenge us to consider our own response to the orders of those in power over us.  Do we answer first of all to them, or to God?  When justice and fair-play and kindness and respect are diminished, are we willing to say, “In the name of God, we disagree – we dissent.”  At personal risk, Shiphrah and Puah did precisely that – they said to Pharaoh, “We cannot, and we will not obey you.”  


Centuries later the Old Testament prophets hammered the people of Israel for their fawning over and trust in wealth and power rather than in the gracious God of oddly-construed power and of love and of seeming weakness.  Centuries after the prophets, the apostle Peter stood before the religious and political authorities of his day and in the face of their demand that Peter and his colleagues be silent, Peter said, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”


For generation after generation over the centuries this same question has remained:  Will we – like Shiphrah and Puah – be radical in following and obeying God – even at personal risk?  By God’s grace, that is exactly what we will do.  


God help us.  Amen.