What would you think if I told you that what you do this week could change the world? Would you actually buy that idea? If you thought about it and used your imagination, do you think it’s even possible? Or would you skeptically write it off as the kind of claim only a preacher would make?
No matter what you might think, I’m going to say it anyway. What you and I do this very week has the power to change the world. And the reason why I know that goes right back to this morning’s Scripture lesson. A story in the Book of Exodus where two relatively unknown women made a bold, almost unthinkable decision, took a risky, dangerous, certifiably crazy chance, and wound up changing the world around them.
Shiphrah and Puah are the names of the two women in today’s story. And what they did was both a small gesture and a heroic act. They disobeyed a direct order from the most powerful man in the entire land. With the end result down the road being that God was able to rescue all of God’s Israelite people from oppression…
The Book of Exodus begins on an ominous note. The aforementioned Pharaoh, in all his ego and insecurity, wanted to consolidate and solidify his political power. And Pharaoh decided to concentrate his power using a tried and true methodology. Identify a scapegoat. Blame the scapegoat for all the problems. And then get rid of the scapegoat.
The world has seen this script before. Back in World War II, Hitler and Nazi Germany singled out the European Jews and other marginalized populations for extermination. In the 1950’s and 1960’s it was segregation and Jim Crow and racism aimed at Black Americans. In more recent years, the scapegoats have been welfare moms. Illegal immigrants. The “undeserving” poor. Lesbians, Gays, Bisexual and Transgender persons. Muslims pigeon holed as terrorists. One of humanity’s most grievous sins involves our tendency to define ourselves in relation to those around us and then use that definition to deny others their status as beloved children of God.
However, this time around in this morning’s passage, Pharaoh’s scapegoat was the people of ancient Israel. Despite the fact that the Israelites were once considered Pharaoh’s honored guests in the land of Egypt, in Pharaoh’s mind the Hebrew people had gradually worn out their welcome. So eventually Pharaoh enslaved them. And finally he decided to tell Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives, to kill every newborn Hebrew baby boy.
Just as a quick aside, it’s ironic that Pharaoh paid no attention to newborn Hebrew baby girls. I suppose he considered baby girls no threat to him in any way. Although it was two Hebrew midwives, along with Moses’ mother and sister and Pharaoh’s very own Egyptian daughter, who were ultimately responsible for Pharaoh’s undoing.
In any case, Shiphrah and Puah refused to kill the Hebrew baby boys. What’s more, they lied directly to Pharaoh’s face. “The Hebrew women give birth to quickly,” they reassured Pharaoh. “We just can’t get to these Hebrew women fast enough to do what you want us to do…”
It’s a preposterous explanation. Hebrew women aren’t any faster or slower than any other women at giving birth. But Pharaoh was convinced. And one of those Hebrew boys who apparently was born way too quickly, survived and grew into adulthood. That boys name was Moses and he was the one who led the Hebrew people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land.
Shiphrah and Puah’s simple and courageous act of civil disobedience actually changed the course of history. I doubt Shiphrah and Puah set out to transform the world. Yet because they paid attention to their own conscience and acted faithfully in spite of the immense risk, they did just that...
In 2010, Andy Andrews, a noted New York Times bestselling author, wrote a book entitled The Butterfly Effect. Bryan Nurnberger referred to the concept recently when he came a few weeks ago to talk with us about the work of Simply Smiles. Although I haven’t read book myself, I understand the book is filled with examples of extraordinary events in history that can be traced back to simple and courageous small scale efforts.
One of the examples Andy Andrews uses in the book is agricultural. A biologist named Norman Borlaug, in the middle of the twentieth century, developed high-yield, disease resistant corn and wheat crops. And because of his efforts, Borlaug not only received a Nobel Prize, but he’s also credited with saving two billion lives from famine in places like Mexico, Pakistan, and India. Obviously, Borlaug deserves a huge amount of recognition for his efforts and the sheer magnitude of the impact he made.
But is Norman Borlaug the only one worthy of accolades? Or should Borlaug share recognition with Henry Wallace, the one-term US Vice President who created an office in New Mexico where hybrid seeds for arid climates could be developed. The same Henry Wallace who had the foresight to hire Norman Borlaug to run the program.
Or should we credit George Washington Carver who once went on long walks with Henry Wallace and instilled in him a love of all plants. Or maybe we need to include Moses and Susan Carver who once adopted an orphaned George Washington Carver as their son.
The point Andy Andrews makes in his book is that events and lives and actions are interconnected. And any one of us is capable of doing something that will ripple across time and space and wind up affecting the lives of millions.
Think about your own lives for a moment. Maybe someone sitting in the congregation this morning is a teacher who will wind up giving one of their students encouragement this week. And because of that encouragement, the student will wind up befriending one of their peers who might otherwise have given in to thoughts of loneliness and despair and self-harm. Or maybe you wind up talking with one of the kids living on your street and giving him or her tips about how to stand up to the neighborhood bully. And when that kid in your neighborhood stands up to the bully, it plants a seed that one day grows into the kid becoming a lawyer or a police officer or a social worker and child advocate.
Then again, could it be possible that someone in the sanctuary this morning will hear something in the Scripture lesson or a hymn or the prayer or the sermon that stays with you, resting on your heart? And that word or that music or that prayer gradually takes on a life of its own, causing you to want to make an impact in someone else’s life in the name of Jesus Christ…
The things we do today…this week…have ripples. And God willing, most of those ripples will be positive. When all is said and done, the question isn’t whether you and I will make a difference in the world this week. The question is what we will do to make a difference…and how we will do it.
What we do doesn’t have to be bold or risky or dangerous or earth shaking. Some things we do might seem so small they will hardly be noticed. But the butterfly effect reminds us that everything we say and do has the power and the potential to make this entire world a better place.
All of which brings me back to the story of Shiphrah and Puah…one of the best stories I can think of to read and remember on this Mother’s Day Sunday.
In the name of Shiphrah and Puah then, we honor and remember those mothers in our world who loved God enough to stand up to the death-dealing forces of this world in order to secure a place for us to grow and flourish. In the name of Shiphrah and Puah, we celebrate those mothers who sowed hopes and dreams into the very fabric of our spirits.
In the name of Shiphrah and Puah, we recognize the modern-day midwives among us who helped us work through pain and struggle in our lives in order to achieve our goals. In the name of Shiphrah and Puah, we recognize the women in our world whose courage we admired, whose example we looked up to, whose witness served as our frame of reference, who inspired us and mentored us and showed us the way.
In the name of Shiphrah and Puah, we acknowledge women who are willing to put people and principles before power. Women who are willing to stand up for what is right in the midst of profound injustice. Women who are willing to persevere even when the odds are stacked against them and the powers that be conspire against them. Women who have changed the world…
Just think…what you do today and this week might just accomplish the same! What I do today and this week might just have ripple effects wider and deeper than I can imagine! The only thing left is to go out and do it…
In the name of Shiphrah and Puah, I wish you a Happy Mother’s Day! Amen.