Text: Exodus 1:8-2:10
What if I told you this morning that what you do this week could change the world? Would you believe me or discount my words as being overly dramatic? Does such a statement give you hope or send you running into hiding? Let me phrase my question a little differently. What if I told you that you hold the power to change the world? Does that also seem like an overstatement—leaving you thinking that no one person has that much power, much less you? What do you think about this statement: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.” (Marianne Williamson) We are powerful beyond measure! How we understand our power is a central question in the biblical narrative; and this question extends well beyond our sacred scriptures and into understanding the state of our world as we know it today. It is this question of power—how we understand it, possess it, and use it—that I want to talk about this morning.
Gandhi once said that “Power is of two kinds. One is obtained by the fear of punishment and the other by acts of love.” The story of the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, is a great illustration of Gandhi’s words. Let me set the stage:
The beginning of Exodus starts on a chilling note. A ruler, wishing to solidify his political base, identifies a common enemy, a scapegoat to blame for whatever current problems plague society. We’ve seen this movie before. In the ‘30s, especially though not exclusively in Germany, it was the Jews. More recently it’s been, by turns, the illegal immigrants, the welfare moms, the gays, the “undeserving” poor, and the Muslims. One of the chief manifestations of sin is our penchant for defining ourselves over and against others and in the process denying others their essential humanity, their status as beloved children of God.
This time around [in the biblical story], it’s the ancient Israelites. They get fingered by a Pharaoh who has conveniently forgotten that for generations the Israelites he names as possible terrorists had been considered allies and honored guests. And so he first enslaves them and then turns to even darker means, telling the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, to kill all the Hebrew baby boys that are delivered. But they refuse. They do not kill the boys. They lie to Pharaoh, telling him that the Hebrew women give birth too quickly, delivering the babies before the midwives arrive on the scene. This somewhat comical explanation turns out to be a courageous act of civil disobedience that changes history, for one of the boys that is spared will be called Moses and he will lead the Israelites out of Egyptian captivity. He will deliver God’s law to the Israelites and bring them to the promised-land. And it all starts with two women willing to say “no” to an act of injustice [and to use the power they possess in an act of love]. I doubt very much they thought they were changing the world. But they were, just by being faithful, by following the dictates of their hearts, by heeding the call of conscience.
(David Lose, Working Preacher)
When I was in the Republic of Georgia in 2007 I met Shiphrah. Well, not exactly. But I did meet a modern-day Shiphrah. You can see her here in these photos on the communion table. Many people have asked me upon seeing this frame in my office when I met Mother Theresa. There are some similarities both in appearance and character but the woman in this photograph is Ether Kurdiani. I met Ether Kurdiani on the way back to the capital of Tbilisi from a long, hard two day trip to the Black Sea. Malkhaz had told me that there was a woman he wanted me to meet that lived in a small town just outside of Gori. As we approached the building that Ether lived in, an old crumbling Soviet building, all that Malkhaz had shared with me was that she was 92 years old and was an important person in his life. As we entered her two room apartment, she was lying on the bed in the front room. Malkhaz greeted her with warm Georgian words and a holy kiss and took a seat in the chair that was by her bedside. I pulled the only other chair in the room by her bed and listened as Malkhaz explained to her who I was. Through the squinting of her eyes, I could see her trying to imagine what I looked like for her eyesight has left her some years earlier. The longer he talked, the broader her smile became. She reached out into the open space between us and I knew that she wanted me to take her hands. I placed my hands in hers and she began rubbing my hands. In a clear but quiet voice she spoke to Malkhaz. He said to me, “she wants to feel your face.” I leaned close to her and with one of her hands she traced the contour of my face. She spoke again. Malkhaz interpreted, “She would like for you to offer her a blessing.” “A blessing,” I said. And Malkhaz nodded. I offered a blessing, closing with the words, “God to enfold you. Christ to touch you. And the spirit to surround you always.” She breathed every word in deeply as if she were smelling a sweet rose. After a moment of silence, I asked if she might be willing to offer me a blessing. Again, her face lit up and she motioned for me to come closer. I knelt down by her bedside, she placed her hands on my head and began speaking. Malkhaz didn’t interrupt to interpret—he didn’t need to. I knew that God’s blessing was being bestowed upon me. And in that moment, I could feel the power of her blessing and I knew that what was happening was holy and sacred and transforming. I knew that this woman was passing on to me a kind of power that can change the world—power obtained through acts of love.
Why I am telling you about Ether, and why do I call her the Shiphrah that I met. Malkhaz would later tell me that it was Ether and her sister, both school teachers, who kept the Christian church alive in Georgia during the Soviet rule by pastoring an underground church just outside of Gori—the home place of Joseph Stalin. He told me stories of how she and her sister had risked their very lives to keep the social gospel alive in Georgia; how in courageous acts of civil disobedience, they changed the history of The Republic of Georgia. They paved the way for those who would come after them—Malkhaz, Rusudan and others—preaching a social gospel of radical inclusiveness, hospitality, and love. Through oral tradition, they had no Georgian Bibles, they taught the stories of a man named Jesus who healed the sick, welcomed the stranger, ate with sinners, broke down the dividing walls of hostility, who was persecuted and an immigrant himself. Their underground church became a sanctuary for those who were being persecuted because of their faith. And today, through their small gestures and heroic acts, the social gospel is alive in The Republic of Georgia. Two women, school teachers, changed the history of their country because they understood the power of love is so much stronger than the love of power. They chose power rooted in acts out of love, not the fear of punishment, and they changed their world.
There are two kinds of power in this world. Listen to how one person described these two kinds of power:
The power of love and the love of power are two very powerful forces that drive human beings to a state of sanity or insanity. These two forces are absolute opposites, and it is either one or the other. You can never have both forces in your life because your heart is not big enough to accommodate both. One is a healer and the other is a destroyer. One loves and brings people together but the other hates and divides people. One is a big giver that expects nothing back in return but the other gives only to take it all back plus more. One is very brave and brilliant but the other is a coward and very stupid. One represents peace but the other represents war. The power of love is an awesome healing balm for the soul while as the love of power is a very dangerous poison for the soul. The power of love is a magnificent force that makes you aware of other people’s sufferings and needs. But the love of power makes you think you are better than others so you look down and take advantage of them any time an opportunity presents itself. The power of love moves you out of your comfort zone and gives you the zeal to help the poor, the sick and the less privileged. But the love of power could care less about those unfortunate people…The power of love empowers you to speak out for those who can’t speak for themselves, and defend those who can’t defend themselves.
The love of power makes people live a false life, drives them crazy, makes them chase after vanity 24/7, and leaves them hungry, thirsty, empty, frustrated, depressed and hurting deep down…But on the other side, the power of love is real, truthful, the greatest and the most positive force in the whole universe that every soul and everything is craving for on a daily basis. The power of love empowers us to do everything out of love no matter what it may take or how long it may take.
I worry that when we hear the word “power” we assume it is a commodity reserved for kings, presidents, the wealthy, the privileged. While it is true that powerful people have more power, it is also true that every single one of us has power, and that we daily make the choice of which kind of power we will access and use. In the presence of a powerful pharaoh, the question Shiphrah and Puah were faced with was: Will we understand our own power through the fear of punishment, or through acts of love? In the presence of much injustice in our world, the question we are faced with is: Will we, like Ether and her sister, stand against injustice and the pharaohs of our day by committing ourselves to small gestures and heroic acts of love?
What if I told you that you have the power to change the world? Would you believe me? Do you believe me?