August 24, 2014
Approximately three years ago, I was moving from Iowa to Oklahoma. In the midst of packing boxes and making decisions and doing all the things you do when you’re moving, I made a visit to the community college where I taught for seven years. At that time, I hadn’t taught on campus for over a year, although I’d been teaching online. When I went, I knew that the majority of students I’d taught would no longer be there. But I didn’t expect to know as few teachers as I did. Although I was an adjunct, I still spent a great deal of time on that campus. So it was disconcerting, to say the least, to be remembered by so few – or forgotten by so many. I think I expected to walk in and be greeted like a long lost friend. Instead, I received a few "Oh yeah, Amy. You taught ethics didn't you?" Even the folks who did remember me and were glad to see me had work to do. They had papers to grade and reports to submit. Life at the college had gone inexorably on, without me. I walked away from that visit feeling as though my name was changed from Amy to Amy Who? It is hard to be unremembered.
In the story before us today, life has also gone inexorably on. Last week we completed our journeys through Genesis. We left the Joseph Cycle with Joseph, the prime minister of Egypt, reconciled with his brothers. His entire family has moved from Canaan to Egypt, to the land of Goshen. Not only did Joseph save his own flesh and blood from the terrible famine devastating that part of the world, he saved all of Egypt as well. Because of his salvific actions, you’d expect the name Joseph to be uttered in reverent tones for generations. Yet at the beginning of this new act in the story of God’s people, many generations have passed. Centuries have passed, and a new king, a new pharaoh, has risen to power. If someone were to say the name "Joseph" to this pharaoh, I suspect his response would have been, "Joseph who?" Joseph, the Hebrew man who saved Egypt has been forgotten. Not only has Joseph been forgotten, but his people are now feared by this new king. He fears them because there are just so many of them! If Egypt goes to war, the Israelites might join with the enemy and fight against him. How did he deal with this imagined threat? He sought to control them by mercilessly enslaving them. Perhaps they can be broken through hard labor. Maybe, just maybe, working long hours in brutal conditions will keep their population in check. But the Israelites continue to multiply. It seems that even torturous hours of backbreaking work couldn't stop the Hebrew people from being prolific. Even if Joseph was no longer remembered, the promise of God to Abraham that his descendants would number more than the stars seemed to be coming true – even in or in spite of, slavery.
Pharaoh’s fear of the Hebrew people made it easy for him to make them the scapegoat for any of Egypt’s ills. As history testifies, when our political leaders tell us to be afraid of a group of people, we too often comply. So not only did Pharaoh fear the Israelites, so did all Egyptians.
Slavery wasn't slowing the Hebrews down, so the pharaoh decided to try another course of action. He summoned two midwives who helped with the labor and delivery by the Hebrew women, Shiphrah and Puah. If I were to mention these two names randomly, outside of the context of these verses, you might ask yourself, "Shiphrah and Puah who?" However these two names, these two women were well known by my fellow seminarians and I. They made for a great trivia question.
What were the names of the two midwives in Exodus? Puah and Shiphrah!
Other students talked about naming pets after them. Some joked, at least I hope they were joking, about naming their children after them. Wouldn’t they be great names for twin girls?! I think a couple of students dressed up as them for a Halloween party. Yet outside of a specialized community like a seminary, these two women, Shiphrah and Puah, aren't well known. But what they did set in motion an extraordinary course of events.
The pharaoh summoned them because he had orders for them. When they were attending to a Hebrew woman in labor, they were to kill all newborn boys. The infant girls could live, but kill the baby boys. But Puah and Shiphrah feared God more than they feared Pharaoh. They wouldn't kill innocent babies. So they did something that tends to be overlooked and forgotten in the larger scheme of the Exodus. They lied. They lied to the king of Egypt. They lied to a ruler who didn't just believe he was the monarch of a nation; he believed he was god on earth. And the lie they told the pharaoh was fantastic! Basically they told the man who ruled everyone and everything that the Hebrew women delivered their babies so fast and so easily, so "vigorously," the midwives couldn't get to them in time. Egyptian women might deliver their children slowly, and with a certain amount of decorum, but babies born of Hebrew women were like cars shooting out of the final turn in a log ride. They just came on their own!
This lie told by these remarkably brave women begins the events that led to the birth of Moses; to his ride down the Nile in a basket, which in Hebrew is the same word for "ark;" to his being saved by the Pharaoh's own daughter; to a burning bush and the call of the great I Am; to a hard-hearted ruler and a series of ever-worsening plagues; to the parting of a sea; to the wilderness, to the promised land.
In a commentary he wrote about this passage a few years ago, David Lose refers to a book by Andy Andrews called The Butterfly Effect. Essentially, this effect is the idea that small actions can ripple out into big change. Lose offers an example about Norman Borlaug from this book. Norman Borlaug developed high-yield, disease resistant corn and wheat. That hybrid corn and wheat saved millions of people from famine. But Borlaug ran an office in New Mexico created by former vice-president Henry Wallace. Wallace created this particular office for the development of seeds that would grow in arid climates. Wallace was mentored by George Washington Carver, who loved flora and fauna and instilled that love in Henry. George Washington Carver was an orphan who was adopted by Moses and Susan Carver. And so on. And so on.
This is the butterfly effect. Borlaug was able to do the really big thing that he did, creating hybrid seeds that saved the lives of millions of people, because of smaller actions, smaller choices made by other people.
Who knows how many baby boys were saved because of Puah and Shiphrah? We can’t know the answer to that question. But we do know about one little guy their actions saved. Moses. He was rescued twice. First, by Puah and Shiphrah, then by Pharaoh's daughter. One child spared, one child rescued, grows up to rescue a nation.
Perhaps what we take from this story, from these two little known and often forgotten women, is that small, seemingly inconsequential actions can effect dramatic change. It is the butterfly effect. What was true for Puah and Shiphrah is true for us. We can't predict how one small action on our part can set the gears in motion for a much larger change.
In his commentary, David Lose made the point that the world is changed by ordinary people one small act at a time. It seems to me that this means that every single one of us has the power, the capability, the wherewithal to effect change. Every. Single. One. What we might think of as little more than a small gesture of kindness or compassion could initiate the butterfly effect that leads to a larger change.
In the midst of all the bad and sad news we've been hearing and reading lately, there has been a piece of good news. For two days the customers at a Starbucks in Florida paid for the people in the drive through lane behind them. One person randomly decided to pay for the latte of the next person in line, then that person did the same, then the next person, and so on. For two days! Approximately 700 people! Sure, we can write it off as merely buying a cup of coffee for a stranger. But we don't know the stories of the people who received that coffee. We don't know their circumstances. We don't know what one of them might have really received in that small gesture of kindness. Perhaps there was a rekindling of hope and trust in the good will of other humans. To paraphrase one of my least favorite campfire songs, maybe that rekindling will lead to a larger spark, and that spark will ignite a flame, and so on and so on. We just don't know.
But what I do know is that there is no act of kindness, compassion, or generosity too small that God cannot work through it to do great and wonderful things. Puah and Shiphrah were just ordinary women. They weren't famous as Joseph once was. For most folks their names are followed by "who?" Yet their faithfulness, their willingness to do what some might consider small acts led to something great.
What supposedly small acts have you done? What gestures have you made? Who have you touched with a word or inspired by example? Maybe what you think of as small or ordinary or inconsequential could lead to something much bigger? Maybe a hundred years from now, all of our names might be followed by “who?” But even if our names are forgotten, our actions won’t be. When we act faithfully, even in the smallest of ways, big change can result. So keep doing those small things, and let us trust that through them God has done and will do the big things. Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.