Text: Exodus 1:8-2:10
Renowned feminist theologian, Carter Heyward, once said that, “the theologian’s task is to help bring a greater measure of redemption to the world.” The word “redemption” is one of those highly theological terms that, for some of us, carries heavy baggage with it. When I visited Lou Rosser this week, she asked me what I was preaching on this Sunday. When I told her that my sermon was about redemption she looked at me with a somewhat puzzled look, raised one eyebrow and said, “Can you explain to me just what it is that we need redeeming from?” It is a good question and it reminded me that, as with all theology, each of us has a personal relationship to the words we use when talking about our faith.
Lou reminded me that a theology of personal redemption is not easily sorted out. Central to the biblical concept of personal redemption is the question of Jesus’ death on the cross and the need for such human atonement for sin. This question of whether or not Jesus’ death was necessary for the redemption of humanity, has been and still is vigorously debated in theological circles. Some people of faith believe that Jesus dying on the cross was humanity’s only way to salvation, and it is through the cross that we are redeemed from our sins and thus have a personal relationship with God. There are other faithful people who believe that Jesus’ death on the cross was not a necessary act of atonement, salvation, or redemption, but rather an act of violence that is in need of redemption itself.
This morning, I choose not to wade into those shallow, muddy waters. Regardless of what you believe about the crucifixion and Jesus’ death as a redemptive act of atonement, my question this morning takes us into the deeper waters of what it actually means to be a people who believe redemption is real and necessary, and who are willing to take the risks to become redeemers in our world. Like Lou, you may be wondering, “But redeemed from what?” I say to you what I said to Lou: “We, humanity, need to be redeemed from a pervasive attitude of greed and power and possessiveness. Redeemed from political and religious intolerance and arrogance. Redeemed from everyday cultural rhetoric that divides and polarizes us. Redeemed from the stereotypes that give some privilege while keeping others shut out. Redeemed from unjust systems and institutions that oppress the weak and vulnerable of our society.” When I finished my litany, Lou looked at me rather intensely and waited. I knew that I had not completed the answer to her question. After a few moments of silence, I concluded, “And maybe we need to be redeemed from those hurt places within ourselves that cause us pain and keep us distant from God and one another.”
Whatever your theology is about the cross, one cannot question that our world is in need of redemption and I tend to agree with Carter Heyward that it is the church’s task to help bring a greater measure of it into the world. Our world needs people who are willing to risk becoming redeemers. Our world needs more midwives like Shiphrah and Puah who are willing to risk, in the face of incredible danger, being redeemers in this world.
Carlyle Marney, the great Baptist pastor-theologian of the 20th century, once said,
The church, the very body of the Christ, is situated alongside, with, counter to, occupied by, and involved with this present time and place. The demand that confronts it is the redemption of the world…The church, as the “realm of redemption” cannot get out of the world. It is the fellowship of the doomed who are being redeemed, but it is more: the church is the fellowship of those being redeemed who are becoming redeemers. In this setting of church and world, as redeemer, the church, in a sense, is the conscience of the world, but only because it is responsible, more than any other, for knowing the higher way. The church lives wherever God’s people are hearing and responding.
While the story of the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, is one of my favorite biblical stories, I also find it to be one of the most challenging, unsettling, and discomforting stories in the biblical text. I love the fact that it is a story about the courage and passion of women who do justice in the face of injustice—who take on the task of redeeming an entire social system that is unjust and oppressive. And, I find it challenging and discomforting in the sense that it reminds us that our faith asks us to take serious risks for the sake of God’s justice. It reminds us that to be those who are being redeemed and becoming redeemers in the world requires an unwavering courage and faith.
The beginning of the Exodus narrative plunges us into a world of danger, brutality, and desperation—a world not unlike ours. It is a familiar world of frightened leaders, abused laborers, and a few social activists who dare to act on behalf of those who have no voice. It is easy to get focused on all that is wrong in the world—to feel overwhelmed with so much unfairness and suffering. It has become our way to fixate on the dark places and the people who do unspeakable things—to be captivated as a nation by the trial and verdict of a young woman accused of killing her 3-year-old daughter after not reporting her missing for over a month, or the man accused of killing his pregnant wife and leaving his child in the home. Rarely, do we highlight those who are taking risks to be redeemers in the world.
So this morning, I want to tell you a story about a day I had several weeks ago when I met two such people. It was mid-morning on a Tuesday when the phone call came. When I picked up the phone a man introduced himself as the pastor of a Presbyterian church in a small rural neighboring town about an hour away. He said that another pastor, someone that I knew, had suggested that he call me because Pullen Church might be able to help in a situation he was dealing with. I listened as this pastor told me about trying to help a desperate young man who had landed on his church doorstep early that morning. And I could tell that he was deeply moved by this young man’s story but felt that he didn’t have the experience or the resources in his town to really help him. The story of the young man is complicated – “he” was a hermaphrodite, born with sexual characteristics of both a male and female. At 5 he had been adopted, and his adoptive parents had always wanted a girl, so they gave him hormones and dressed him as a girl. As soon as he could, the young man left home, and began to live into what he felt was his true identity, that of a man. From age 18 to 25, he had been mostly alone and homeless, struggling to find a place and to connect with others. The pastor asked that if he brought the young man to Raleigh could I talk with him. I agreed to meet with both of them the next day. It wasn’t long after we hung up that he called back to ask if there was any way I could see them that day. I could hear the urgency in his voice so I agreed to a late afternoon meeting. That afternoon the three of us met for about an hour and came up with a plan for how to offer support to this young man who found himself in a strange town, alone and homeless. By evening, our plan had fallen completely apart and the young man was in deeper crisis. And so, late that night, I met the local sheriff of that small rural town at a Bojangles half way between here and there to bring the young man to Raleigh where he would be safe.
As I got out of my car, the sheriff came up to me and said, “Are you the pastor that’s going to help this young man?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “And your church helps people who are in his situation?” I said, “Yes, we try.” And he said, “Thank you for what your church does.” Then he held out his hand, slipped some money in my hand and said, “Here, will you get him something to eat on the way back to Raleigh. I tried but he said he wasn’t hungry.”
Nearing midnight my phone rang and it was the pastor who had brought the young man to see me earlier in the day. He was concerned and wanted to know what more he could do to help. We talked, agreed on some more next steps and said good night. The story continued the next day as that pastor and I spent most of the next day working together to help the young man get where he needed to be.
Why do I tell you this story? Because I believe in some ways it is a modern day Shiphrah and Puah story. No, it is not as dramatic as the story of the Hebrew midwives who go against the powerful Pharaoh to save an entire people. But it is a real story of two people, a pastor and a sheriff, who risked stepping out of their comfort zone and their safety for the safety of another human being. It is a real story of God’s people hearing and responding. It is a real story of those being redeemed becoming redeemers. Somewhere in the midst of those 24 hours I found myself in need of redemption—to be redeemed from my own prejudices and stereotyping; redeemed from my own political and religious intolerance and arrogance; redeemed from those hurt places within that keep me from relationships with people who are different from me—and I’m not referring to the intersex young man.
The Exodus story doesn’t end with the Hebrew midwives—Shiphrah and Puah. No, possibly the most redemptive of all acts in the first part of the Exodus story comes in the actions of Pharaoh’s own daughter. It was she who found one of those Hebrew male babies floating in a basket among the reeds of the Nile River. It was she, Pharaoh’s own daughter, who took the child into her home, sent for the child’s own Hebrew mother to nurse him and then adopted him as her own son and named him Moses. And with that, you know the rest of the story.
“The demand that confronts us individually and collectively is the redemption of the world…The church, as the ‘realm of redemption’ cannot get out of the world. It is the fellowship of the doomed who are being redeemed, but it is more: the church is the fellowship of those being redeemed who are becoming redeemers.” Shiprah and Puah could not have known the whole story of their bravery as they risked everything day-to-day delivering those Hebrew babies—but surely the story of Moses is a direct extension of their individual acts of courage. The pastor and the policeman from my story cannot possibly know if or how the young man’s life will change because of their interventions; but just as surely they have contributed to the redemption of the world. As those being redeemed, may we risk whatever is necessary to become redeemers in our world.