May 9, 2021
On June 11th, 2011 – nearly ten years ago – I became a father.
But – let’s be honest – the more important happening that day was that Meg became a Mother.
Given the day, perhaps I should reframe that – give credit where credit is due – that was the day that Meg became a mother.
Let me pause right there and say that I don’t invoke this lightly today.
Mother’s Day is a complicated day and it comes with complicated emotions.
While many enjoy the blessing of a very tender connection with their mothers, for others that can be a painful relationship.
While many have brought children into this world without a hitch, for others that is a dream that never did come true, or a path paved with much struggle and loss.
So let me name all of that complexity right up front.
Furthermore, let me say that Meg and I shared in no small amount of struggle to realize the family that we have and we’ve never been shy about that, knowing that it parallels the experiences of so many.
All three of our daughters owe a great debt to science for their existence.
What amazes me, though, is that for all the trouble we had becoming pregnant, we actually never had anything approaching a dramatic or remarkable delivery story.
With Naomi, we got to the 38th week and every day we were on pins and needles “Will she come today?” I’d wonder…
We got to the expected due date – 40 weeks – “Well, any day now” we kept saying.
And don’t get me started about the Church where we served.
I can’t tell you how many times I was stopped in the hallway at the 41 week mark with eager inquiries “Any news yet?”
“None yet,” I’d say with a smile, “…do you really think I’d be here if there was…”
Seriously, one day I got so tired of it that I got a stack of six stick-on name tags and wrote in big block letters – NO BABY YET THANKS FOR ASKING. (I have this picture if you want it)
Clearly, this child had no sense of urgency and so on a Wednesday morning our OB-GYN served up her eviction notice with a dose of Pitocin – say that five times fast:
“Notice with a dose of Pitocin”
“Notice with a dose of Pitocin”
A few years later with our twin daughters, same story. We made it all the way to 38 weeks before they said “It’s time for these girlies to come out and meet their big sister”
None of them were terribly eager to come into the world, and sometimes I can’t blame them.
I mean, the womb is a pretty sweet gig in a lot of ways – warm, lots of white noise and you get to sleep most of the time. What’s not to like?
But perhaps more than anything else is that it’s safe.
We can’t say that for the world out here, can we?
Our story today is a hard one.
This is a story in which children really are not safe…and you might say “Isn’t this an odd choice for Mother’s Day?” Maybe.
This past week Meg and I preached at what’s called the Sprunt Lectures at Union Presbyterian Seminary.
This year’s Sprunt Lectures included a memorial tribute to our Old testament professor, Dr. Dean McBride. Dr. McBride was a giant in the field of Hebrew Bible scholarship. You can find his name in any New Revised Standard Version of the Bible as he was a part of the committee that translated it. And if you were a student of Dr. McBride, it was impossible for you to pass his class without coming to know a couple of Hebrew midwives inconspicuously tucked into the first chapter of Exodus. So – a reading of verses eight through twenty.
Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9 He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” 11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13 The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14 and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.
15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” 17 But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18 So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” 19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” 20 So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22 Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”
Video – Letter from Shiphrah and Puah
Pharaoh has a problem and Pharaoh thinks that he knows what that problem is…but he doesn’t.
Pharaoh thinks that he has a population problem.
He gazes upon the Hebrews masses but no longer does he see the descendants of Joseph; no longer does he see the keepers and carriers of that “you shall be a blessing to ALL the nations of the earth” covenant.
The only thing Pharaoh sees now is a foreign threat – outside agitators who will in time overrun Egypt.
Pharaoh thinks he knows what the problem is, but he doesn’t.
And when you don’t understand what the problem is – you’re liable to make it worse.
And Pharaoh does just that – relentlessly pursuing a number of disastrous policies.
First he tries enslavement – “let’s work them to the point of extinction” he says, but still the Hebrews multiply.
Seeing that slavery is not the solution, he takes a more direct approach, though at first with some eye towards his administration’s reputation. He secretly solicits the Hebrew midwives to quietly kill the baby boys at birth… “the mothers won’t even know” he whispers with a wink.
Shiphrah and Puah – clear eyed and in full possession of their moral compass – refuse to cooperate. Of course, they must be more subtle in their resistance, so they feed Pharaoh subversive stories of Hebrew mamas who are far more hardcore than those delicate Egyptians.
In frustration, Pharaoh takes his extermination policy public, encouraging anyone and everyone to pitch Hebrew boys into the Nile.
At every turn, however, Pharaoh’s misguided policies fail miserably.
It’s almost as if he’s opposing the will of God.
In many ways, Pharaoh reminds me of this…
Video of Dog at Loose Park, trying to keep the fountain from founting
You can’t stop this, Pharaoh, you can’t hold it back.
As James Weldon Johnson reminds us, your arms just aren’t long enough to box with God.
So yes – Pharaoh has a problem, and Pharaoh thinks he knows what it is, but he doesn’t.
But what Pharaoh simply cannot grasp is that, already, he is sewing the seeds of his own undoing.
The more obvious one being that baby Moses is about to be “cast” into the Nile. In time Pharaoh’s own daughter, also clear eyed and in full possession of her moral compass, will draw this child out of the river and bring him right into the heart of the royal palace. But lately I’ve been wondering about a larger, more tragic, arc in this Exodus narrative.
A few months ago, one of my daughters asked if I would read to her.
We picked up an illustrated children’s bible and started flipping through in search of a good story to read. When we came upon Moses in the Bullrushes the baby caught her eye and so she said “that one!”
We read about Moses’ mother and the basket made of reeds, of Miriam watching her brother drift down the Nile. We finished the story and Caroline said “What happened next?”
We flipped the page and there was the story of Moses, now grown, standing before a burning bush, charged to bring the Hebrews out of Egypt and into a promised land.
Caroline said “What happened next?”
We flipped the page and then saw these pictures of Locusts, frogs and flies; we read about the ten plagues of Egypt…and at the lower right corner there was a picture of Pharaoh weeping and in anguish, holding the body of his first-born son. As I finished the final words on the page I could see the wheels turning in her mind and I thought to myself “Oh boy, here it comes…”
And then she asked the question that every parent, pastor, Christian educator and Sunday School teacher dreads to hear when dealing with the Exodus. She slapped the page and exclaimed “Wait, God killed his son?!?”
Now Daddy has a problem and he’s pretty sure that he knows what it is….it’s a theological problem.
If you’re hoping that I will give you an easy “how to explain the 10th plague of Egypt to a 6 year old without the benefit of a fully developed prefrontal cortex enabling abstract thought” I will sadly be disappointing you today. I couldn’t even begin to recreate whatever bumbling response I offered her. But this moment got me wondering – about Pharaoh and his real problem.
It seems to me that Pharaoh’s real problem isn’t a foreign threat.
The problem is inside his own hardening heart.
Pharaoh has decided to live in a world where children are expendable.
How he got there, we will never know, but when you play fast and loose with the lives of children, one should not be surprised to discover that your own children are vulnerable, too.
So I wonder if we might understand the 10th plague of Egypt – not as some horrifying act of divine retribution – but more as the natural consequences for a society that has lost the capacity to value its sons and its daughters.
If only that problem was distinct to ancient Egypt?
But between the children detained in cages at the border while others are piped from classrooms into prison cells and the fact that no amount of school shootings can get us to curb our obsession with firearms, I fear that we have as much reason to fear as Pharaoh.
But I also got to wondering that perhaps what truly bears the fingerprints of God in this story is not so much the death of the firstborn as it is these women who are slightly off camera in this story – these women whose heart are soft enough to resist such inhuman policies. Perhaps it is Shiphrah and Puah and Pharaoh’s own daughter who – in spite of being on opposite sides of this harsh reality – summon a similar courage to say enough is enough. I will not participate in this.
It’s almost Mother’s Day, and in any normal year, Mother’s Day will actually be the third most attended worship service of the year, second only to Christmas Eve and Easter Sunday. I have mixed feelings about this. “Mother’s Day?” you might hear me say. “That’s not even a real liturgical holy day. Why can’t people come out for Pentecost? Or what about, what about Transfiguration Sunday? That’s a big deal! But no – Mother’s Day is the big hitter…”
By the way, I only say that in my own head and never out loud…except right now…in front of all of you.
Mother’s Day is a made up day, but recently I discovered how it came to be…and more importantly why it came to be. Julia Ward Howe was an abolitionist and a feminist and the author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. She also served as a nurse during the American Civil War and so had plenty of first-hand experience with the cost of war. In 1870 – nearly half a century before it would be adopted as an official US holiday, she issued this Mother’s Day Proclamation:
“Arise, then… women of this day!
whether our baptism be that of water or of tears!
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country
to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.
It is a completely made-up day, but long before it was taken over by the florists and the greeting card industry, Mother’s Day called forth a tenderness to thaw the most hardened of hearts; a summons to live in a world where our sons and our daughters are not expendable.
At times it shows up in the form of a dramatically burning bush.
Other times it is revealed in the quiet example of countless Shiphrahs and Puahs,
but the call is clear in every time and place:
a tender heart, a soft heart, is what brings healing.
In this hard and harsh world, may God find the church to be so tender-of-heart.