Foundry United Methodist Church

Jana Meyer, Minister of Missions




 “Shiphrah, Puah, and Paul: Midwives of Faith”

Sunday, August 24, 2008



Exodus 1: 8-21
Romans 1: 16-17


Jana Meyer


Many of you know that I do not have children of my own.  But what you may not know is that I have witnessed a number of births.  When I worked at a hospital in Mozambique, one day I was told with no notice to leave my regular social work responsibilities to serve as interpreter for an ob/gyn doctor who would be at the hospital for 3 months. I had of course visited the maternity ward as part of my work with the hospital chaplain and with social services.  Yet, during the next three months, working 6 or 7 days each week, I would get to know the life of that ward in a very different way. 


The nurses were called midwives because they assisted at the majority of routine births.  They called their ward “the house of happiness”, and in the labor and delivery room there were frequently women on all the birthing tables as well as on mats on the floor all in various stages of delivery. One of the midwives herself gave birth during this time, working her shift up to the very last moment when she too got into the stirrups and gave birth in a record short labor. 


I, however, did not think of the ward as the house of happiness.  Because the midwives assisted at the births without complications, the doctor I was interpreting for was called in for all the difficult births with complications – sometimes women who had traveled on the backs of pickup trucks from the districts when the local midwives could not help them.  Some of these situations had good endings – as when a friend of mine delivered a healthy baby in spite of a detached placenta – and others did not have good endings.  There were still births and miscarriages.  There were women left with physical effects of birth that would have been resolved had they been here in the US but instead left them with incontinence, a probable end to their marriage or their husband taking on a second wife, and a loss of economic security.  There were the women who thought they were in monogamous relationships until discovering they had an STD, and couples trying to find a way to conceive.  I often thought of the ward as the house of pain. 


I myself felt completely unsuited to my role.  I had always been someone who sometimes faints when giving blood, and I had to concentrate on not fainting in the delivery room.  Each day was more difficult for me. Instead of building tolerance I became more and more triggered by the smell of blood and infections, by the sound of the instruments.  I was not comfortable in this unexpected role and not that suited for it, although I was a good interpreter.  Yet those three months may have been the most important thing I did during my time in Mozambique, and who knows, maybe in my life, in helping to connect women with medical care during such an important and risk-filled moment in their lives.  In spite of my limitations, I unexpectedly participated in the sacred work of midwives.


In our story, the Hebrew midwives Shiphrah and Puah, found themselves in an unexpected position.  The Israelites were enslaved and oppressed.  Yet, birth continues to happen no matter what else is going on. All of a sudden they were summoned to Pharaoh and asked to kill the baby boys that were born.  Knowing midwives I cannot imagine them ever agreeing to such a thing.  And yet we have so many examples of what imaginable terror will force people to do – children forced to kill parents, mothers smothering babies – in Rwanda, Liberia, Mozambique, Chile, Nazi Europe, and the United States.  These midwives when faced with this situation during the course of their job, found a clever way to save the baby boys and let them live by simply continuing with their work and coming up with a story to tell Pharaoh. You may remember how the story continues – Moses’ mother hid him in a papyrus boat, his sister watched over him, and Pharaoh's daughter took him into her own household – all these individual, risky acts of salvation which eventually led to Moses liberating and saving his own people.  God's liberation for the people worked through the saving actions and faith of each of these individual people. 


The apostle Paul was also a midwife - in a metaphorical sense.  Paul was a midwife of the early church.  What exactly do midwives do?  The International Definition of a Midwife (2005) states that the midwife “works in give the necessary support, care and advice during pregnancy, labor and the post partum period, to conduct births...and to provide care for the newborn and infant.  This care includes preventive measures...the detection of complications....and the carrying out of emergency measures.”  What else are Paul's letters all about?  Paul was a partner in the birthing process of the gospel into new churches.  While he was not involved in the beginnings of the church in Rome, he was very concerned about that community and about the unity of the larger church which he was also assisting as midwife.


Paul's midwife activities were not easy.   The Christian communities struggled with divisions and issues of identity and mission.  There were a lot of complications, and not always happy endings.  Furthermore, Paul's work in the context of an oppressive Roman Empire carried great risk where the Christian gospel was seen as a direct threat to the ideology and authority of empire.   Just as Shiphrah and Puah risked their lives to save the baby Israelite boys that were a threat to Pharaoh, so Paul risked his life in caring for the church, and spreading the gospel.  In today's reading, the thesis of Romans, he says “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power o f God for salvation to everyone who has faith...for the righteousness of God is revealed through faith.”


Paul's words intrigue me as I try to understand their relevancy to our current context.  What about that S-word – salvation –?   Salvation is a concept that has been abused in the history of the church, used to exclude people, to condemn people.  Not all of us are really comfortable with the idea of salvation.  It can seem rather out of place in a church like Foundry and it’s not something that necessarily appears in our daily conversations.  Many of us in our daily lives feel complicit with a culture of consumption, inequality, violence.  In spite of our best intentions, it seems like we end up participating in injustice.  That is also the context for Paul’s letter to the Romans – a world of systemic sin where all of us are complicit so that even with good intentions we are implicated.  What is the relevancy of salvation to us today in a world of injustice?


The story of Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives, helps me to understand salvation.  Their faithful response to God in their daily work, at great personal risk, caused them to participate in God's saving activity or salvation, for the Hebrew boys, and also for themselves.  And this was part of a larger story of God's saving activity of the Exodus – the liberation of God's people. This story, in the context of the bondage of the Israelites, highlights two essential qualities of salvation: God's salvation is both a present moment as well as a future hope.  And God's salvation requires and demands our faithful response in order to be revealed. As Paul says, the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith.   Yet, this faithful action can put us in tension with the world and those around us.


Another image that comes to me when I think of salvation is of the walk in mission, which is its own microcosm of humanity and pain and joy and imperfection.  I'll never forget one person, who has had struggles with drug addiction and homelessness, and has often slept on our front steps.  We've had a lot of mixed interactions with both me and him often showing our worst sides.  He's yelled at the church out in front.   Yet I remember the day he came in and told me he was clean from drugs and had a job.  All I could think of was salvation.  For him and for me.  For a moment.  And the urgent need for all of us to midwife and to accompany those moments of salvation in others and in ourselves.


Sometimes we think about salvation as something for everyone else but that doesn’t really impact us.  The faithful actions of Shiphrah and Puah that saved the baby boys also brought salvation into their own lives.  We can forget we are also included as recipients of God's saving activities.  Some of us may have specifically been told that we are excluded from God's salvation. Others of us have just forgotten.   I am reminded of a time I went on a 2 day retreat close to Charlottesville.  As I was leaving my cabin, the woman staying in the other cabin called to me.  She said she had a message for me that salvation wasn't just for everyone, “it’s for you too.”  And it was through those words, as strangely as they were delivered, that I felt God's saving grace for me.  Grace and healing, liberation and justice are all related and part of God’s salvation and love that is felt and experienced in the present, while being completely revealed in the future.


I could continue telling story after story in my life and in Foundry's.  The wisdom and experience of men and women who have been at Foundry for 10 and 15 years and 30 years and more as midwives to this congregation and the countless moments of salvation that have been experienced here.  Our reconciling movement.  Our Sunday school and discipleship classes and what has been born in those classes in the lives of children and adults.  Susanna Wesley house.  The day laborers union and their struggle for justice. 


It’s not just through Foundry that salvation happens and that we are called upon to be midwives.    It is in our everyday lives that God calls upon us unexpectedly, without notice and often inconveniently, and in ways we don't feel fully prepared for. God calls upon us in our families or by ourselves, in our workplaces through the work we do or with our coworkers, in our job search, in the parks and streets, in the shelters.    More important than any example I could give is your story.  Where are you called to midwife these moments of salvation in others and in yourself?  How are you being called to participate in God's saving activity?  In some cases as a fierce midwife like Paul or Puah.  In other cases like an interpreter afraid of fainting in the maternity ward yet nonetheless a critical participant in assisting and safeguarding the birthing process. 


What faithful action is being required of you?  What is the risk you are being asked to take?  Where in your life is God's justice and healing love waiting for you in order to be revealed? As we struggle for how to do justice in such an unjust world, Paul tells us that God's justice is revealed through our daily acts of faith.  We are called to participate as midwives in God's salvation for this world.


As Christians, we are witnesses to God's ultimate saving activity through the faith of Jesus Christ to the point of death on the cross, to the resurrection and victory of life over death.  The cross was a reality of Paul's life – he himself was killed by the Romans – and the life of all those who lived during the Roman Empire.  In our world today there is violence that is just as horrible, and among us today are those who have experienced a cross in some form.  The risks, the pain, the struggle, the failures cannot be minimized, and are in fact the context in which God's saving activity takes place,  along with the joy and the hope of our future salvation.


As we await and hope for the ultimate victory of life over death, we participate in God's salvific activity through being faithful to God's call upon us in our daily lives.


We don't have to be ashamed of the gospel.  In fact we can have confidence in the gospel because it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith – for everyone else and for you and for me.  For in it God's justice is revealed through acts of faith.  It's what the Scripture says: those who do justice will live by faith.


May we be guided by the faith of Shiphrah, Puah and Paul and be midwives of God's salvation and justice in this world.