How many videos have you watched of people giving a little speech before pouring a bucket of icewater over their heads? Charlie Rose wore a tuxedo in his. Carol Doidge came prepared with a towel and a set of dry clothes to yesterday’s board retreat. Bill Gates carefully planned and built a contraption that is scheduled for release as part of Microsoft Office in October. President Bush thought he could get away with just writing a check, but his wife Laura knew better. Jack McLaughlin told his dad to go first and for a moment it looked like he really just wanted to see his dad do the deed and use his own bucket to water the lawn. If you saw any of those brief videos, chances are you smiled a lot or laughed out loud, because people are so funny and creative. And you probably cried a little, because you got to hear moving stories of love and courage. This wave of short, life-affirming videos is rolling across the nation, telling us about ALS and asking us to support efforts to treat and prevent that terrible disease.
And then, midweek, news of another video, made by the servants of death, showing the beheading of American journalist, James Foley. What a clash of creative, splashing, life-affirming exuberance and the horrid theater of terror and death. “The brutality of this act is itself evidence of an unspeakable evil that is rampant and inhuman,” said New Hampshire Bishop Peter A. Libasci of Manchester. “To the prayers that have been offered since his captivity almost two years ago, we now add our prayers for James’ eternal rest and, in Christ Jesus Our Lord, James’s future resurrection to eternal life. Our prayers also must accompany a sorrowful mother, a grieving father, a deeply pained family and countless friends who have kept vigil all this time,” he said. “May we also pray for those who have embraced the way of darkness and death, that they may turn away from this terrible evil now and forever.” The latter prayers will be more difficult than those for James’ family and friends, but Christ is praying with us for liberation, the liberation of all from all that keeps life from flourishing.
In our reading from the book of Exodus we hear about a new king who arose over Egypt, a king who did not know Joseph, son of Jacob. A new king with a short memory who did not remember how well Joseph had served Pharao, and how he had risen from slave and prisoner to the king’s right-hand man. A new king who didn’t remember that it was Pharao who had said to Joseph, “Settle your father and your brothers and their families in the best part of the land,” and they settled in the Nile delta. There they prospered; they were fruitful and prolific, and the land was filled with them. The new king regarded those Hebrews, those resident aliens and their large families with growing suspicion. In his mind, fruitfulness and flourishing among the Hebrews represented a growing threat. “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we.” His anxiety quickly turned into a policy of forced labor, but his efforts only had the opposite effect of his intentions: the Hebrews continued to multiply and fill the land. The new king was a man of considerable power, but another power was at work in the community he feared: life, unstoppable, irrepressible, uncontrollable life.
Forced labor wasn’t enough to keep the Hebrews in their place, and so the king ratcheted up the oppressive measures; summoning the Hebrew midwives and giving them the obscene command to kill all newborn Hebrew boys he embraced the way of darkness and death. Zora Neale Hurston wrote about this in her book, Moses, Man of the Mountain:
“Have mercy! Lord, have mercy on my poor soul!” Women gave birth and whispered cries like this in caves and out-of-the-way places that humans didn’t usually use for birthplaces. Moses hadn’t come yet, and these were the years when Israel first made tears. Pharaoh had entered the bedrooms of Israel. The birthing beds of Hebrews were matters of state. The Hebrew womb had fallen under the heel of Pharaoh. A ruler great in his newness and new in his greatness had arisen in Egypt and he had said, “This is law. Hebrew boys shall not be born. All offenders against this law shall suffer death by drowning.” So women in the pains of labor hid in caves and rocks. They must cry, but they could not cry out loud. They pressed their teeth together. A night might force upon them a thousand years of feelings. Men learned to beat upon their breasts with clenched fists and breathe out their agony without sound. A great force of suffering accumulated between the basement of heaven and the roof of hell. The shadow of Pharaoh squatted in the dark corners of every birthing place in Goshen. Hebrew women shuddered with terror at the indifference of their wombs to the Egyptian law. (…) Then came more decrees:
Israel, you are slaves from now on. Pharaoh assumes no responsibility for the fact that some of you got old before he came to power. Old as well as young must work in his brickyards and road camps.
No sleeping after dawn.
Fifty lashes for being late to work.
Fifty lashes for working slow.
One hundred lashes for being absent.
One hundred lashes for sassing the bossman.
Death for hitting a foreman.
Babies take notice: Positively no more boy babies allowed among Hebrews. Infants defying this law shall be drowned in the Nile.
Hebrews were disarmed and prevented from becoming citizens of Egypt, they found out that they were aliens, and from one new decree to the next they sank lower and lower. So they had no comfort left but to beat their breasts to crush the agony inside. Israel had learned to weep.
Yet in the deadly chaos of genocidal cruelty, courage and grace arose. And in the story, each is given a name: Shiphrah and Puah. Remember those names, remember those women.
The servants of death want to build their empire of fear, and you feel small and powerless against them and you say to yourself, “Why doesn’t the ground open under the feet of these evil doers and swallow them up? Who will stop them? What can I do?” Remember Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives. The first time God is mentioned in the great story of the Exodus is when these two women are introduced. They knew a thing or two about new life that wants to be born. They knew a lot about helping new life to emerge and thrive. These two women knew everything about the shadow of Pharaoh squatting in the dark corners of every birthing place in Goshen. But the midwives, it says in verse 17, feared God; and the fear of God gave them the courage to resist. They did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them; they let the boys live.
What can one person do? Choose to fear the God of life and refuse to obey the masters of oppression.
The great story of the liberation of God’s people begins with two women willing to say ‘no’ to a mad king’s deathly decree. With defiant grace they went about their good work in the birthing place. When the king summoned them again, demanding an explanation, Shiphrah and Puah lied in the name of truth. “Those Hebrew women, you know how they are. They give birth so quickly, they’re done long before we get there,” they told him. Now the mad king commanded all his people to throw every boy born to the Hebrews into the Nile.
Lord have mercy. The way of darkness and death has long distorted everything – work into forced labor, neighbors into executioners, the great river into a mass grave, the mission of God into crusades, the name of God into a justification for murder. Yet amid the chaos of the king’s decrees, life yet again broke through defiantly; and it was good: a man and a woman got married and they had baby. His mother hid him, and when she could no longer hide him, she made a basket, put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the water’s edge. The Hebrew story teller has left a beautiful hint that is hard to detect in translation. The word for ‘basket’ is the same word which is translated ‘ark’ in the story of Noah and the flood. We’re invited to hear the two stories together, to let one resonate in the other, and to know that the little boy, floating in his little ‘ark,’ is safe. It may appear as though nothing could escape the pull of terror and death in the mad king’s realm, but the floating cradle tells a different story.
Pharao’s daughter comes to the river, finds the basket and opens it and sees the little boy who is crying and she picks him up. “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she says. She recognizes that he is a child from the slave community, a child under death sentence from her father – and yet she doesn’t throw him into the river. She obeys a different law than her father’s and thus becomes part of the conspiracy of grace that resists Pharaoh’s fury. Now the boy’s sister steps forward, and smart as a whip she asks with all innocence if perhaps her royal majesty would like her to go and get her a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for her? And before you know it, the little boy is back in his mother’s arms.
Two midwives, a mother, a sister and the king’s own daughter, each in her own way, resisted the pull of terror and death and, barely knowing of each other, the five women participated in God’s conspiracy of life and liberation. What can one person do against the servants of death and their empire of fear? Remember these women and their courage to say yes and no; then go and do likewise.
 Zora Neale Hurston, Moses, Man of the Mountain