Rev. Katelyn B. Macrae
Richmond Congregational Church
August 24, 2014
On Sesame Street they sang, "one of these things is not like the other, one of these things just doesn’t belong." And, at first appearance it may seem so as we approach these texts from Exodus in the Hebrew Bible and Paul’s letter to the Romans in the New Testament. And yet, the Revised Common Lectionary has paired them together ---- so let’s see if we might find the connections between them today.
When I was in seminary, this passage from Romans got right to the heart of the transformation and challenge I was experiencing as a student. I really resonated with this passage and went so far as to put it in my e-mail signature line!
When Paul issued this challenge to his first century community – "do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds" – he was trying to inspire a small community of believers who were seeking to follow a new faith tradition where they were surrounded by the dominant culture of the Roman Empire.
One example of this difference is Pax Romana vs. Pax Christi. Pax Romana, as practiced by the Roman Empire was peace by subversion, conquering and military rule whereas Pax Christi, was the peace that Jesus spoke of that could only be gained through loving and respecting neighbors, and having transforming relationships that went across the social and cultural divisions.
In our story from Exodus that we read this morning, the King seems to be practicing a similar type of rule to that of the Roman Empire. It says that the King did not know Joseph, who saved the Egyptians from seven years of famine by building up their grain stores. Finally The Hebrews have had an opportunity to follow the provisions of the Abrahamic covenant we heard about earlier this summer with Abraham and Moses. They’ve been fruitful and multiplied. But the King feels threatened by the growing numbers of Hebrew people, so he orders the killing of all of the Hebrew male children. Hebrew society was patrilineal, so by killing all of the males, the king was trying to wipe out the Hebrew people’s identity and connection.
In this story, the midwives (Shiphrah and Puah) do not carry out the king’s wishes. The scripture says that Shiphrah and Puah “knew God.” In a very subversive act, they lie to the king and say that the Hebrew women are “more vigorous” and give birth before the midwives have gotten there. One biblical commentator suggests the king must be unfamiliar with childbirth and the fact that the process usually takes many hours! The midwives use the king’s ignorance to their advantage. As Paul’s writes to the Romans many centuries later, the midwives would “not be conformed.”
Earlier this month, I discovered a BBC show called “Call the Midwife.” The series is about midwives working in the East End of London post WWII. The midwives of Nonantus House are a community of young idealistic nurses and Anglican nuns, who together encounter all sorts of precarious situations made for TV drama – a Spanish-speaking woman with 19 children, whose husband only speaks English, excessive poverty, immigrant families domestic violence, racism, disease and the other challenges of urban poverty. These midwives find their niche in a community that sorely needs them.
The midwives accompany these women through the journey of childbirth, helping them to have healthy babies in spite of the conditions the children are born into.
The midwives also attend to residents other health concerns. In one episode, tuberculosis spread rampantly through the close confines of the East End. The midwives learn that the hospital they work in conjunction with is getting an x-ray van to do lung x-rays to screen people for tuberculosis. But the van is slated to go to higher income neighborhoods first. The obstetrics doctor and one of the midwives goes before the hospital board and petition for the van to come to this low-income community first as the risk of spreading infection is much higher there.
The midwives are successful in getting the x-ray van to the neighborhood, and screen a record number of residents. With early detection, people infected are able to get treated quicker, and also slow the rate of infection for others.
As people of faith, I wonder, how are we like midwives? Are there ways that we can challenge the expectations and the norms of the dominant culture in places where there is dis-ease? Not just with justice and access to medical care, but with any number of concerns – such as hunger, housing, and poverty.
The bible is filled with stories where God does something new in the most unlikely of places and with the most unlikely of people. In today’s stories alone, think of how God chooses “unlikely” people to be ministers and midwives –
Paul, the author of Romans, was converted from Saul. Paul goes from working for the Roman Empire, to encouraging his community “not to be conformed” to it!
In the gospel text for this week from Matthew, (which we did not read today but was in the Lectionary) the disciple Peter seems to get it right one moment, and then screw up the next. Do you remember the story from a few weeks ago when Peter walked on water for a few steps and then began to sink? Yet Jesus chooses Peter to be “the rock” of the church and gives him the keys to the kingdom.
In the story that we heard today during Children’s Time, Old Turtle speaks a quiet peace among everyone who is arguing about trying to understand who God is, based on their experience. Everyone gets louder and louder.
They can’t hear or understand each other, because they are each hung up on their own ideas. Then Old Turtle, quiet unlikely old turtle, gets their attention. Old Turtle helps each creature understand they each have an understanding of who God is, and when they put all of these stories together, it points to a much richer understanding of God.
Maybe it’s like that with us as a community of faith, a community of unlikely followers, each with our own stories and gifts. When we take time to share our stories, and listen to each other, like putting together the pieces of the puzzle, soon, a greater picture of who God is, and what God can do, emerges.
In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he is writing to a small community, giving them an ethic for how to live together and practice their faith, in a dominant culture that does not necessarily welcome or appreciate their point of view. He urges them “not to be conformed, but to be transformed” – through learning, through discerning, through hearing the stories of God working in the world.
So it is with us as a community of faith here in Richmond, Vermont. We are not living in an oppressive Roman Empire, but we do live in one of the most secular states in the US.
And we have an important story to tell – the story of God’s transforming, abundant love and grace offered to all. We are an amazing expression of the Body of Christ – some teachers, some ministers, some deacons, some preachers, some cooks, some artists, some money counters, each with a different story, a different skill set, a different understanding and experience of God.
As our children and educators head back to school this week, let’s be midwives for each other’s learning. Let’s tell the story of God who can and does work in unlikely ways with unlikely people in unimaginable situations, as well as in the day to day stuff of life. Let’s discern together. Let’s be transformed together. May it be so.