Text: Exodus 1:8-22
A week and a half ago Geneva Reed-Veal spoke at the Library of Congress. She was addressing the newly formed Congressional Caucus on black women and girls. Her speech lasted about four and a half minutes. She began: “I don’t have a big long statement to read. What I’m going to say to you is that I’m here representing the mothers who are not heard, I am here representing the mothers who have lost children as we go on about our daily lives.”
Geneva Reed-Veal is the mother of Sandra Bland, the 28 year woman stopped by a police man in July of last year for a failure to signal a lane change. Bland had verbally challenged the cop for pulling her over, the confrontation escalated, and he arrested her. She was found hanged in a jail cell three days later. The official cause of her death was ruled a suicide.
Sandra Bland’s story made national news, but in her talk Geneva Reed-Veal asked for a show of hands for who could name the other six women who died in custody in jail in the US that same month, July 2015. Nobody raised their hands. I couldn’t have either.
Reed-Veal’s response: “That is a problem. You all are among the walking dead, and I am so glad that I have come out from among you. I heard about Trayvon, I heard about all the shootings, and it did not bother me until it hit my daughter. I was walking dead just like you until Sandra Bland died in a jail cell in Texas.”
On this Mother’s Day, Sandra Bland’s mother has declared that I, and probably most of us here, are “walking dead.” Alive, but unaware.
This winter and spring I’ve been part of a Sunday school class that’s been studying the first half of the biblical book of Exodus. I chose today’s reading having been inspired from the lively discussions in that class.
Exodus tells the story of the children of Jacob, who is also named Israel. Exodus picks up where Genesis leaves off, with the Israelites as new arrivals in Egypt. Jacob and his wives and all their children and grandchildren have moved together to join Joseph, the son Jacob thought was dead, but who had risen to prominence in Egypt and invites his whole extended family to join him.
Exodus begins with a generational turnover, including the Pharaoh who was favorable to the foreigner Joseph. Exodus famously states, “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.”
The Israelites prosper in Egypt. They have big families. This new Pharaoh senses the demographics of his empire shifting under his feet. He is fearful that these foreigners will become too powerful. He has a plan. He sets taskmasters over the Israelites, conscripting them into forced labor. When they keep growing in numbers, the taskmasters become more ruthless, the labor harsher. But Pharaoh knows this won’t be enough. In order to achieve his goal, he must strike at the heart of the problem.
Pharaoh must disrupt motherhood.
It’s a brutal plan. He calls in the Hebrew midwives and gives them a simple command. When you deliver the babies of the Hebrews, the Israelites, let the girls live, but kill all the boys. In a patriarchal world, the death of future male heads of household equated to the death of a nation. In the time of Jesus, a similar, more geographically focused, command went out from Herod, when he heard that the Jewish Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem.
These midwives become key early characters in the story of Exodus, and they are the first people in this new story to be named. Not even the king of Egypt gets named, Pharaoh being just a title meaning “the big house,” similar to how might use “the white house.” But the midwives have names.
One was named Shiphrah and the other was named Puah. And there’s only two of them, so they must have been really busy, because these Hebrews are having a bunch of babies.
Shiphrah and Puah suddenly hold within their power the fate of an entire people. They are not themselves mothers, at least not yet, but they are, in a sense, guardians of motherhood.
Along with being Mother’s Day, today is Easter 7 on the liturgical calendar, the last Sunday of the Easter season. Which means we’re still talking about conversions. Geneva Reed-Veal voiced her own conversion at the Library of Congress, challenging others to wake up with her. I wonder at what point Shiphrah and Puah had their conversion, making the decision that they would honor the motherhood of the Hebrews over the commands of Pharaoh. I’ve read that their refusal to kill the Hebrew boys is the first recorded act of civil disobedience. If you know of an older reference, I’d love to hear it. They are the matriarchs of conscience objectors everywhere.
I wonder what kind of conversions motherhood provides. And when I say, “I wonder what kind of conversions motherhood provides,” I mean that I actually do wonder, since I am not, never have been, and never will be a mother. One comparison I can make in my own experience was expressed well by Bono, the lead singer of U2. He once said that he used to think that fatherhood would mellow him out, but instead it made him even more fired up about the injustices in the world.
One of the things I find especially appealing about the story of the Hebrew midwives is how seamlessly they go between the gentleness and warmth of welcoming children into the world, and the more confrontational conversation with the powerful Pharaoh – from the small dwellings to ‘the Big House.’ I love how the simple deed of holding and protecting a child is celebrated as act of rebellion against the ways of Pharaoh, and thus, an act of faithfulness to God. Had Pharaoh any wits about him he would have been just as suspicious of those baby girls as he was of those baby boys. Nothing brings down an empire like independently minded women who have problems with authority.
Yesterday we had a funeral for Anita Chapman. You’ll notice signs of her presence still here this morning. After Anita’s parents died, they entrusted their daughter to the care of this congregation. In many ways, this congregation became like a mother and a father to Anita. And I suggest those decades of motherhood led to a gentle conversion of Columbus Mennonite.
I shared this yesterday, but want to repeat it here to make connections with today’s worship.
As I was looking through a collection of documents we have in the office, I came across an article from the November 10, 1992 edition of The Mennonite magazine. It was written by CMCer Nancy Franke, describing the relationship that the congregation had with Anita. Toward the end of the article it said this: “She has lost both parents, experienced repeated staff turnover and seen close church friends leave. So she looks for assurance that there will always be someone there for her at church. The congregation is not capable of providing the kind of professional support and daily guidance that Anita needs, but its members provide a solid anchor of love to which she can cling. The congregation is often tested and still learning in this regard, but its members are fulfilling the trust her parents placed in them.”
“Tested, and still learning” sounds something like a mantra of motherhood, what conversion looks like on a daily basis.
On one of my first Sundays here as pastor, about three years ago, Anita stood up and asked that her song be sung. As the congregation started right in, without further prompting and without script, I felt a sense of being welcomed onto holy ground. More than simply a case of someone making a request, it was clear to me, still a newcomer in this space, that this Anita’s way of expressing herself, borrowing the voices of the congregation to amplify her own voice. And it was also the congregation’s way of affirming and amplifying the gift that Anita was to the community. It was a beautiful thing to walk into, and witness.
These relationships change us, and convert us toward love. Sometimes that love looks like holding and protecting a child, or walking alongside a person with special needs, and sometimes it looks like advocating in the public sphere for those you love.
I would be remiss if I didn’t highlight that tomorrow evening is one of the primary ways our congregation does the latter, advocates in the public sphere for those we love, those we are choosing to be in solidarity with. Jon Lucas already gave an invitation to the BREAD Nehemiah Action, but let me just add that this is our way of joining together in the spirit of Shiphrah and Puah with people of faith across Franklin County. I can guarantee there will be mothers there who are living the same reality as Geneva Reed-Veal. As a congregation that has chosen to focus on Black Lives Matter and make the journey toward antiracism, BREAD really is one of the key ways that we do concrete advocacy work in our community. And tomorrow’s Nehemiah Action is the big BREAD event of the year, when Shiphrah and Puah go round up all their friends and have a big shindig at the Ohio State fairgrounds. We would love to have 100 of us Mighty Mennos show up. Consider it an extended opportunity to celebrate and honor Mother’s Day.
Even if you can’t attend tomorrow, let me end with this plea, to mothers, and anyone who considers themselves a midwife of the new creation, helping to birth love and justice into the world. We need your fierce love. What you are doing is God’s work. I need women to call me out when I blindly use power in a way that disempowers rather than empowers others. Even that phrase “call me out” isn’t sufficient. At the racial justice event at First Unitarian Universalism in April the female organizer of the event, a First UU pastor, encouraged us drop the phrase “calling someone out” and change it to “calling someone in.” Even harsh words of rebuke can be an invitation into a new way of relating together, rather than an excommunication.
Mothers, midwives, we need you to call us in to a new way of relating together. Deliver us from the walking dead. Teach us what you know. You are images of our Mothering God, who calls her children toward her wide embrace.