Proper 16A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

It looked bad for the Israelites. Once they were welcomed guests. Now they were feared aliens and oppressed slaves. A new king rose up in Egypt who did know Joseph nor remember how he once saved the nation from famine (Exodus 1:8).

Imagine a ruler, wishing to solidify his political base by blaming a scapegoat for problems that plague society. We’ve seen this movie someplace before. In this version, Pharaoh plots to destroy the Israelites, first by forcing them into slave labor, then by ordering that male babies be killed at birth, and when that doesn’t work, finally he commanded the citizens of Egypt to drown male infant Israelites in the Nile.

And that should have been that. And for many, if not most, it was. The suffering and grief must have been enormous. Pharaoh’s persecution of the Israelites went on for years and generations.

But God remembered the promise made to Abraham and Sarah. So, the Israelites thrived despite their oppression. The Spirit of God remained at work. Something Pharaoh forgot became his undoing. Pharaoh targeted men. Yet it was women he should have feared. Specifically, two women named Shiphrah and Puah, lowly midwives. They did not kill the boys as ordered. They refused. They lied to Pharaoh, telling him the Hebrew women give birth too quickly, delivering their babies before they could arrive on the scene. Next, three more women advance the subterfuge each in their own way. Moses’ Hebrew mother, and his sister, Miriam, and Pharaoh’s Egyptian daughter. Separately and together these women plant seeds God will cultivate for the Exodus of the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt.

Each of us has one life. What we choose to do matters. Shiphrah and Puah’s courageous act of civil disobedience changed the course of history. One of the boys they spared will be called Moses and he will lead the Israelites out of Egyptian captivity. I doubt they thought they were changing the course of history, but they were. Just by being faithful, by following the dictates of their hearts, by heeding the call of conscience, they played a decisive role in what would be bound and what was set loose upon the world. (David Lose, The Butterfly Effect, Working Preacher, 8/14/11)

This is the terrifying good news in our scripture today. Your life, and what you do with it matters. It matters forever. Shiphrah and Puah help us to see what Jesus meant when he told Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 16:19A). In Jesus’ time, rabbis spoke of this power to “bind” the law by deciding which commandment was applicable to a particular situation, and they cut “loose” the law when they determined that a word of scripture was not applicable under certain specific circumstances.

You may think it unwise, but God entrusts each of us with lots of keys. The keys of discernment, of judgement, and of choice open possibilities and foreclose others. Your acts of mercy, forgiveness, kindness, and love will bind humanity to certain indelible truths we call ‘the past,’ and free humankind to explore vast new horizons we call ‘the future.’

Ordinary acts of conscience and courage have extraordinary consequences. Author Andy Andrews wrote a little book years ago called, The Butterfly Effect, (2009, Simple Truths, LLC, pp. 90-99) in which he tells the story of another man named Moses, and his wife Susan, who lived in Missouri, a slave state, during the Civil War. They were slave owners but decided they didn’t believe in slavery. This proved to be a problem for a band of raiders who terrorized the area by destroying property, burning and killing. “And sure enough, one cold January night, they rode through Moses’ and Susan’s farm. The outlaws burned the barn, shot several people, and dragged off the slave woman named Mary Washington who refused to let go of her infant son, George. Mary Washington had become Susan’s best friend and with his wife distraught, Moses sent word out through neighbors and towns and two days later managed to secure a meeting with the bandits” (Andrews, p. 94).

On a black horse, Moses rode several hours north to a crossroads in Kansas. There, at the appointed time, in the middle of the night, he met four of the raiders. “They were on horseback, carrying torches, and flour sacks tied over their heads with holes cut out for their eyes. There, Moses traded the only horse he had left on his farm for what they threw him in a dirty burlap bag” (Andrews, p. 95). As they rode off, Moses fell to his knees and pulled from the bag a cold … naked … almost dead … baby boy.

Covering him with his own clothes and relying on the warmth from his own body, Moses turned and walked that baby back home. He promised he would educate the boy to honor his mother, whom they knew was already dead. He gave that baby his name: George Washington Carver. Yes, that George Washington Carver. According to Andrews, there are currently 266 things he developed from the peanut, and 288 things he developed from the sweet potato that we still use today (Andrews, p. 86-87).
When young George was a 19-year-old student at Iowa State University, he would befriend another boy, the son of one of his professors, whose name was Henry Wallace.

George inspired Henry with a love of plants and a vision for what they could do for humanity. Wallace would grow up to become Vice-President of the United States during Franklin Roosevelt’s second term from 1941-1945. Wallace “…used the power of that office to create a station in Mexico whose sole purpose was to hybridize corn and wheat for arid climates. Wallace hired a young man named Norman Borlaug to run it” (Andrews, pp. 78-79).

Norman Borlaug went on to win the Nobel Prize and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He developed seeds that flourished in dry conditions where none thrived before, from Western Africa to our own desert Southwest, from South and Central America, to the plains of Siberia, and across Europe and Asia. “Through the years, it has now been calculated that Norman Borlaug’s work saved from famine more than two billion lives” (Andrews, p. 74).

And so, for the second time in human history, a man named Moses saved the lives of a multitude as numerous as stars in the sky, or grains of sand upon the seashore, just by doing what he knew was right.

Throughout the Bible, writers and prophets have given people hope by revealing God’s deepest intention not just to save the world but also to heal it. In fact, “healing” and “saving” are both meanings contained in the Greek word sozo that appears dozens of times in original New Testament manuscripts but is usually translated as only “save.” With both meanings of sozo in mind, how might we be called right now to imagine a new just and multiracial society? How might we conceive to live in such a way as to restore the earth rather than destroy it?

The apostle Paul wrote, “I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14). Each of us is endowed with gifts of the spirit, keys to awakening the prophetic imagination. These are the keys to our shared future. Every single thing you do matters. You have within you the power to re-shape the world. Just by choosing kindness, mercy, justice, courage and conscience, we are making the whole world better for everyone and for all those who follow.