“It all started with Civil Disobedience”
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
September 2, 2018
University Baptist Church
It’s great to be here as September begins. Too bad the weather did not cooperate enough for us to be on the lawn today.
I love the energy of Dinkytown. All the students moving in.
Loaded down with books and excitement and fear.
It’s end of summer, the end of the State Fair, and the start of something new.
New ideas gleaned from this great institution of higher learning that surrounds this church.
The story of the Hebrew people begins with liberation.
Exodus is actually the start of the story of this particular people and their journey toward freedom.
Genesis is the prequel, probably written after Exodus. Leviticus and Numbers tell about the law and the journey in the wilderness.
The Deuteronomy tells it all again from a different perspective.
Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles tells about the developing Kingdom and its eventual downfall. The establishment of government, the building of the temple, fighting amongst their own tribes and outsiders resulting in their eventual exile. The Prophets tell of the way things go wrong and try to urge the people to get better. Psalms gives music and liturgy to the drama. Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and Job, the so-called wisdom literature adds the voice of Sophia and encourages us to be downright philosophical about the struggle for integrity.
You have Exodus, exile and then a new liberation story in the Christian Scriptures all trying to get at how we should live with God, and with each other. It’s no accident that Jesus begins his ministry as he returns from exile in Egypt, perhaps even walking the same route as his ancestors.
But it all really started with the exodus.
This year, we will be looking at stories of people who have lived into hope. They are too often ignored or forgotten. But they speak truth in the power of God and at times speak a timeless truth to the would-be powers and principalities of this world who hold their positions of domination for a time. The Biblical story is a story of liberation. It’s a story of truth spoken in and to power.
And right there in the opening verses of Exodus are our two first liberators.
They are not Hebrews. They are foreigners. The Bible begins with foreigners doing the right thing—at great risk to themselves.
The fact that they are midwives is also no accident. For they are helping breathe life into a new movement.
Who are the midwives who have helped you to become who you are?
Who sacrificed so you could have a home, or food, or clothing, or an opportunity to go to school? What will you help bring to birth in the coming year?
It’s football season and the NFL is requiring people to stand at attention for the national anthem. But the right to protest is also enshrined in our constitution. Protesting not the flag, but police brutality, some players may choose to do a brave thing and take a knee.
Maybe it’s time we remember that the Bible began with an act of holy obedience and civil disobedience.
I’ve told you before that when I was in seminary, two cats that lived on my floor and chased away the mice were named Shiphrah and Puah. In my Biblical ignorance I asked my classmates where they got their peculiar names. “You mean you’re a Baptist and you don’t know about the two most important people in the entire Bible?” I realized I was in for yet another lesson in women’s witness in the Bible that my upbringing had conveniently ignored. They told me to read the first chapter of Exodus and learn the names of the women, Shiphrah and Puah.
We know the setting. Four hundred years passed between the Genesis drama and Exodus. The power shifted. The Hebrew people were foreigners and became slaves to the King of Egypt, Pharaoh. The Bible says that the more they were oppressed the more children they had. It is no accident that the largest families tend to be the poorest among us. More children means more people to take care of you in your old age—more options to get out of poverty, not to mention the out and out hope that a child brings to any situation.
The Egyptians were afraid of the teeming masses of Hebrews, so they increasingly oppressed them. But it did not stop them or break their spirit. Pharaoh feared a slave uprising, so he instituted a program of ethnic cleansing. He declared that all of the female Hebrew babies should live, but all of the male Hebrew children must be thrown into the river and killed. And he made the Egyptian Midwives Shiphrah and Puah accomplices. I am sure there were threats and fines and maybe even death if they did not follow orders. But the midwives, the bible says, feared God. They feared God more than they feared Pharaoh. Feared God, respected God, honored God. They answered to a higher authority. They did not heed the orders of evil. They stood up to Pharaoh because they respected God more than the king. They were obedient to God, not the civil authorities.
When the king saw that there were more male babies running around the camp, he called the midwives and said, “why have you done this?” What follows is one of the best come-back lines in the Hebrew Bible. Shiphrah and Puah said to Pharaoh, “The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and are delivered before we get there.” Don’t you just love it? “They don’t need us. Therefore we can’t comply with your order.” The first act of civil disobedience.
One of these male children whom Shiphrah and Puah refused to kill was later named, by Pharaoh’s own daughter, Moses. Thereby setting the stage for the central theme of the Hebrew Bible: freeing people from bondage and following the leadings of God, even when it opposes the civil authorities.
My friends, we come from a long Biblical line of redemptively disobedient people.
Are there things to which your allegiance to God puts into question your obedience to the status quo?
Is there some burning truth that you know that sets you free and puts you at odds with acceptable religion?
Is there some decision you have made that you wish you had chosen differently?
Are you looking for role models for creative action?
If so, I suggest you look at Shiphrah and Puah. They refused to do violence and they somehow were spared incarceration. In fact, they were given inheritance, which in Biblical times was more precious than gold. That’s the priority that I see in the world today. That’s how I want to make a difference.
We have an inheritance. It’s this lawn, this sunshine, this earth, this community, this season of opportunity. How are we going to use it?
What or whom are we going to set free this year?
How will we be counted as children of the living God?
How will we speak truth in power?
How will we speak truth to power?
Who will be liberated when we dare say “me too”, and tell the stories that help people see clearly?
My friends, the Bible started with holy obedience and civil disobedience. How will this year start?