Proper 16a 2014 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
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 birth stool, 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.
One of my favorite television programs is a British program that is broadcast on PBS — no it’s not Downton Abbey, though I enjoy that one too. No, my real favorite — in fact one I have to number among one of the best TV programs I’ve ever seen — is the series Call the Midwife. If you haven’t seen it, I commend it to you as it is well worth viewing. Just remember to have the box of Kleenex handy. It is powerful and moves me, every episode. The series tells the story of a group of Anglican religious sisters and the lay midwives who work in the impoverished east end of London in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Watching the program has been made all the more poignant to me as I learned that our own dear Monica Stewart — God rest her soul — served as a midwife in London during just that time. I had always known her as a registered nurse working in Harlem at Metropolitan Hospital until she retired, but I didn’t know of her earlier career as a midwife working in London until I read her obituary. She delivered over 8,000 children in her career. Who they are and where, now— who knows? But that’s 8,000 world-changing possibilities in whose coming to be Monica played an important part. Blessings be upon her!
Back to the television series: the thing that moves me most about it is the basic goodness of the characters; none of them are great or famous — although Princess Margaret does appear in one episode — and all of them have their foibles — probably including Princess Margaret — but there is a deep and prevailing goodness about them, a goodness that forms their lives as they go about their work of bringing life and saving lives. Their lives are framed towards the good, even if they sometimes falter; and sometimes they reach greatness. They are unlikely heroes.
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So too are the midwives in today’s reading from the opening chapter of Exodus. Things have changed since Joseph served as Pharaoh’s right-hand man. A new Pharaoh has come along, one with a deep resentment towards the Israelites. For these aliens have prospered in Egypt as the Lord had promised Jacob and Joseph. And so the new Pharaoh institutes a wicked plan to keep their population in check — he orders the midwives to kill all the little boys as they come to birth.
This is a haunting foreshadowing of another order by another wicked king, Herod the Great, an order ironically evaded by another Joseph, with his wife Mary and the child Jesus, by escaping to Egypt rather than from it.
Pharaoh gives his horrifying command, and the midwives respond out of their fear of God; for they fear God more than they fear Pharaoh and they have the courage to disobey the king. These women, whose task in life was to assist in the most natural process possible — a woman giving birth to a child — become unlikely heroes. And as the story continues, more unlikely heroes appear: the Levite’s wife (Moses’ mother), who hides her baby for three months before turning him over to his older sister; and then that sister herself as she places him in the river, in that little ark made from a basket sealed with bitumen and pitch, placing him in the river there — and here’s the big surprise — Pharaoh’s own daughter finds the boy, and even recognizing that he is a Hebrew child whose death has been ordered by her father, she chooses to protect him and have him brought up in her own household — ironically giving him to his own mother to nurse — but also in the end giving him a name, a name that will resound through Jewish history and even up to our day, Moses.
Who would have thought that this unlikely cast of characters — and I hope you will note that all of them are women, young and old — who would have thought that they would be the means by which God’s chosen deliverer of his people would be himself delivered from certain death. Without these women, each and every one of them, the people of Israel would have remained in their slavery in Egypt. These women and their heroism is unexpected and unlikely, but marvelous.
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Perhaps, though, we shouldn’t be so surprised. Heroism is not always what you think it is going to be. Who, after all, turn out to be the real heroes? When it comes to warfare, the great heroes aren’t the generals with their famous names; the heroes are the privates and the corporals and sergeants out on the front line risking their lives in the thick of battle, sometimes losing their lives to save their comrades. And I’ve been around hospitals long enough to know — nothing against doctors, mind you — but many of the real heroes are nurses and EMTs and technicians, the anesthesiologists, the nurses aides — all those others who work, quietly, but sometimes find that they are the ones who end up saving a life.
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In the church as in the world there is plenty of room for heroism — there are, as Saint Paul pointed out to the Romans, many different gifts that differ according to the grace given to each. Not everyone is called to be a hero — yet, who knows when the opportunity for heroism might arise. Those Hebrew midwives studied the art of helping women give birth — a noble task in itself — but they never imagined that they would help save the future savior of Israel. They thought their job was birthing babies — not saving nations.
There is a line in Shakespeare’s play, Twelfth Night: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” It is the same with being a hero: most truly heroic acts are not performed by those who set out to become heroes, but by ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary situations in which a heroic act is required — and who then respond. Who knows when the gift that is given by God according to the grace of God for ministry, for teaching, for exhortation, for generosity, for diligence, or even for cheerfulness — who knows when such gifts might not, given the opportunity, blossom into heroism given the right place and time.
For there are ministers who serve in dangerous circumstances. Priests and ambulance drivers serve on the front line of battle; there are teachers who persist in teaching what they know to be right even when the authorities want to persecute or prosecute them for teaching science when what those authorities want is a dumbed-down refusal to teach what science offers; and there are students like Malala Yousafzai who persist in gaining an education even when there are some who would kill her — who tried to kill her — because they think girls are not supposed to go to school. Those who persist in doing what is right against such opposition are unlikely heroes, but heroes they are.
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One last unlikely hero appears in our readings today — Simon son of Jonah. Who would have thought that a simple fisherman would become one to whom the Lord of heaven would entrust the keys of heaven? Who would have thought that the man who just two weeks ago sank into the water instead of walking on it, when his fears outweighed his faith; that this man who would go on to deny his Lord three times before the rooster crows — who would have thought that this unlikely and wavering candidate could be a hero? Yet when the Spirit descended on that great day of Pentecost, when the Spirit came down on Peter and the apostles, that is just what he did: he is the one that stood up and would go on to face down the High Priest and the authorities and to proclaim the Gospel, even though in the end it brought him to the cross himself, crucified head-down in Rome.
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And so it is for all of us my friends — none of us here are born great. I doubt if any of us will be called to achieve greatness — but, who knows, who among us may have greatness thrust upon us — by being put in the right place at the right time to make use of the gift which we may have thought was purely practical, purely a useful trade, purely a way to make a living, suddenly transformed by the situation in which we find ourselves into something marvelous. Who among us may find some gift transformed into a way to be a hero and perform an act of heroism?
That’s what makes it grace, my friends. To become a hero is not something any of us should expect or even desire. Let us rather hope that if we are ever placed in the position to make such a use of the gifts that God has given us that we will have the courage so to do — to become unlikely heroes. Glory to God, whose power working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.+