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P is for Puah

In 1993, I drove a school bus. This child, a black male, he was 16, 17 at the time, a junior in high school. Six foot seven.  [He] stood out. He rode my bus. I knew him. We lived right up the road.

He lived in a shack with his mother. It was a cow shack. Cows had lived in this house before his mother and he moved in. The floor was dirt. But now his mother had the whitest clothes on a clothesline you'd ever seen because she scrubbed them with rocks.  His siblings were grown and gone.

[One day] I started to drop him off at his house. His house was on fire. I dropped him off at the bus stop, and I said, “I'll be back in 10 minutes.”

And I did [come back]. His mother was sitting on a tree stump. The house was gone. She had nothing. Absolutely nothing. And I know there was no bank account. There was nothing. She had no way to get in touch with anybody. No phones. No, no, no. There was nothing.

And I said, “Okay, I'm gonna take you to your siblings house and we're gonna see if somebody can take you and come get your mom or whatever.” So, I went from Broadway to Sanford to Lemon Springs and every house was “No, no, no.” We rode back over there, and his mom was still sitting on the stump, probably an hour later. One of the siblings was going to come and get her but not him.

I said, “[Ma’am], I don't know what to do.” And she looked at me, dead straight in the eye and she said, “You take him.” That was her son. That was her baby son, her last one. And she said, “You take him.” I thought how in the world can you do that? How can you give up your child like this?

I didn't even talk to my husband, didn't talk to anybody. I said, “Okay. You're going with me.”

He lived with us for two and a half years. No, I didn't have room for him. I had three children. I had a sick mother. I was going to college, I was working two jobs. My husband worked swing shift, and had a lot 12 hour shifts. I had two in middle school, one in high school. And I'm like, “okay, we can do this.”

I told him, “Son, if you stay here, you've got to get a job. He didn't have a driver's license. He wasn't doing well in school. I went up to the high school and said, “we’ve got to get him through high school. He's got to graduate. If we don't do anything else, he has to graduate.”

He graduated. He finished school by the grace of God and by everybody helping me. He got a job at a restaurant. We got him a car, taught him how to drive. He worked hard. He did it.

Now did I have difficulty in the community? Absolutely. We went through heck and back. The hardest thing was seeing how people that I loved in my family and outside of my family were. “How are you letting this man stay there with your children?” And like, first of all, he's not a man. He's in high school. And second of all, you're not paying my bills. And third of all, my children are fine. And probably we will be better for it.

It opened my eyes to so much prejudice, and so much entitlement of people. People don't get it. They don't. They don't understand it. And they don’t want to know, and they never will.

We went to Walmart one day. And I said, “come on, and let's go get XYZ, whatever we will get.” And he said, “You go ahead.” And I said, “No, come on, we gotta get this and get back. I gotta get home.” And he said, “I can't do that.” And I said, “Why can't you do that? I don't understand.” And he got out of the car. He was about 10 paces behind me, and his legs are long, so I said, “What are you doing?”

And he said, “people are talking about you when I walk with you, or if I'm in the car with you, or if I go to church with you.” He said “they talk about you. And I don't want anyone talking about you.”

And I said “I don't care what people say about me. Get over it. It's okay. Don't worry about me, but I appreciate it. But don't worry about it.” He said, “but they'll say things about you if I walk beside you.”

I said “you're not walking behind me. Get up here beside me. Don't worry about me. I'm grown. I can take care of myself. We just got to get you situated.” And he did. And we got through that little ordeal. 

One day, probably two years ago, I was just sitting there. And I thought, ‘you know why she said, “You take him”?’ 

She told me to take him because she knew he would turn out okay, that he would have a better life if she gave up her son. And I never saw it that way before. Twenty years later, and it just hit me like a ton of bricks. She didn't give up her child. She knew I could get him from point A to point B.

And I thought, what courage that took. I thought I was being the…I never wanted the pat on the back for it. Honey, I didn't do anything. You do what you're supposed to do. And you don't sit back, you just do it.

“Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph…” In the time after Joseph’s wisdom allowed the Hebrew people to survive and flourish in Egypt, their immigrant community grew tremendously. So much so, that when a Pharaoh who was not beholden to Joseph’s legacy, saw their potential and power, he determined that they could not be allowed freedom and dignity. Pharaoh fears the Hebrew people and he does what politicians always do, what they still do- he instills fear and hatred in others. “There are so many of them! They will overpower us. They will work against us with our enemies. They will be terrorists, right here among us.” He wants to “deal shrewdly with them” and his fearmongering worked. The Egyptians grow to hate the Hebrew people and joyfully participate in their oppression. Perhaps they even see it as their civic duty- they must subjugate the Hebrews to protect their way of life. God’s people, the offspring of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, are forced into labor, creating bricks, building cities, working in the fields. 

One more thing, Pharaoh says, this time to Shiphrah and Puah, midwives to the Hebrew people. “When Hebrew women have baby boys, kill them.” It’s genocide. It’s horrific. Through killing children, Pharaoh intends to solve his Hebrew problem. But, verse 17 tells us, “the midwives feared God.”

The language of “fearing God” is somewhat unfamiliar and odd to us. We generally feel that fear is a bad thing, that fear implies reacting out of a desire to avoid punishment rather than freewill or love. That’s not what it means to fear God though. There’s a gap where translating fails us here. These women aren’t terrified of God, they love and respect God. They worship God. They revere God, and trust that if they do what they know God is calling them to do, they will be in right relationship with God. They know that trusting in God’s sovereignty and living in obedience is more important than obeying Pharaoh’s commands.

Midwives exist to bring new life; they will not kill those baby boys. As Dan Clendenin says, they say “no to death and yes to life.”[1] And they commit what some say is the first recorded act of civil disobedience. They lie to Pharaoh, explaining that the Hebrew women are just so strong and healthy that they don’t even need a midwife to help! They’ve got those good birthing hips, I suppose, because those babies just come right out before we can even get there! Anyone who has had a baby, or has seen one born can tell you that those midwives were doing their jobs. They were bringing those boys into the world. And they were willing to lie to protect them.

Old Testament professor Kimberly D. Russaw writes that “Midwives are uniquely built for chaos.”[2] And real life is chaos. It’s the chaos of surviving in turbulent political times. The chaos of having to decide between one’s integrity and what’s expected of you. The chaos that fear makes of your mind. The chaos of risking safety and security to do what’s right.

Midwives have a critical and unique job. Their role is to help a delivering woman bring new life into the world. A midwife’s role is not to take center stage, but to make sure that the action on the stage goes as it should. It’s hard work, gritty, and tough. Midwives are encouragers and coaches, they can’t give up, and they can’t let anyone else give up either. A midwife exists to be part of bringing something new and good into the world. Perhaps above all things, a midwife must be hopeful.

And so, while perhaps few of us have experience with midwifery, all of us can be asking this: metaphorically speaking, what am I helping be born into the world? And how is my respect and love of God helping goodness be born today? What are we as a church being led to birth into the world?

Each day is an opportunity to bring justice and peace into the world. And goodness knows we desperately need it. Each day is an opportunity to birth love. I don’t have to tell you how polarized and hateful our world is. We hear the rhetoric and see the violence. Some of Pharaoh’s talking points could be coming from a TV ad today. And yet… and so… we must be those hopeful midwives helping to bring forth new life, a better way, new wisdom. We must birth love.  The great priest and writer Henri Nouwen wrote, “We cannot love issues, but we can love people, and the love of people reveals to us the way to deal with issues.”

We can look at a passage like in Matthew 25 where Jesus says to those who are blessed by God to inherit the kingdom, saying, “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” We could talk about the issues- poverty, immigration, healthcare, criminal justice, and of course I can go on and on- and there is a time and a place to discuss the issues. But when we can love the people, when we can serve them, in the same way that we love and serve Jesus, we may find that we have birthed the solutions already.

Of course, one the most important things we can birth into the world led by our reverence and respect for God is our children here in this church. The waters of birth and the waters of baptism are both for bringing forth new life. And here, as we approach the baptismal font, together we make promises to Porter and to his family that we will help their spiritual lives continue to grow and flourish. We come now in fulfillment to our calling by Jesus Christ to make and baptize disciples.

[This sermon transitioned into the baptismal liturgy.]

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