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Shiphrah and Puah in the room where it happens

The Rev. Dr. E. Michelle Ledder of the Metropolitan AME Church in Washington, D.C., brings Ecumenical Advocacy Days to a rousing close

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Isaac Quesada via Unsplash

ARLINGTON, Virginia — Closing off the two-day Ecumenical Advocacy Days Spring Summit on Saturday, the Rev. Dr. E. Michelle Ledder, assistant minister of the Metropolitan AME Church in Washington, D.C., used the Exodus account of a pair of faithful Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, and Hamilton’s “The Room Where it Happens” to weave a powerful and insightful sermon that brought the 80 or so participants to their feet, wanting even more.

“The EAD Spring Summit is a room where it happens. It’s the first time you’ve met in person since the pandemic,” Ledder noted. “Decisions will be made here that will have impact beyond this room.”

What, she asked, do these two midwives call us to do? She spent most of her engaging sermon answering that question.

The “scared” king of Egypt “has a lot of power over the enslaved,” she noted. Pharaohs before him had recognized some of the leadership in ancient Israel, notably Joseph. But “this king unleashed the fullness of terror on them.” The king legalized genocide, figuring that by killing boys, there would be no men to rise up against him.

Ledder imagined God hearing the cries of the people, “down on their knees, praying that God would make a way out of no way. God found two Hebrew midwives,” she said, “and that’s where the story starts to turn around.”

Shiphrah and Puah had no standing because they had no families of their own. “All they knew,” Ledder said, “was helping women deliver babies.”

The Rev. Dr. E. Michelle Ledder

“So, they started with what they already knew how to do: protect life and help people live,” she said. “These women of God had true courage, the only kind that can stand up to crazy kings and racist regimes. They were true to their God, no matter what room where it happens they found themselves in.”

After a period of time, the king caught on that there were indeed baby boys among the Hebrews despite his edict. As a ruler used to perfect obedience, he confronted the midwives. “But these women, these Hebrew women with no standing, do not cower,” Ledder said. “Rather than bend to state-sponsored bullying, they lie to pharaoh, straight to his face. These women of God had the courage to let the babies live. Despite the risk, they laid their jobs and everything they know on the line.”

There are at least five things we can learn from their actions, according to Ledder:

  • Decisions about who we are go before decisions about what we’ll do. Ledder asked those in attendance to remember a time they were forced to make a quick and urgent decision. “We go to our go-to in these times of pressure,” she said. “It’s what we already believe or value, or already know what to do. Under pressure, our thinking brain shuts down and we use our survival brain. The midwives didn’t have time for a committee meeting. They barely had time to pray.”
  • Liberation is only liberation when it’s liberation for all. “The midwives challenge us not to forget the ways others are oppressed,” Ledder said. “Injustice works best when it terrorizes and traumatizes so badly that [victims] turn around and terrorize and traumatize somebody else. … And so it is with us. True liberation does not fall prey to zero-sum games. The Hebrew midwives exposed that for the lie that it is, and so can we.”
  • Sometimes we’re the midwife, and sometimes we’re not. Someone taught these midwives, and someone counseled them, Ledder said. “Outside the biblical text, we might surmise someone showed them the best positions for mothers and even the problems that can occur [during birth] and what can be done to mitigate them. The midwives needed the unadulterated truth and the skills they needed. … [Those giving birth] can’t afford for you to water down your own integrity based on what the king will and will not do. The scary part is, sometimes, if we’re honest, we are the king. We all have power somewhere.”
  • We have to know which of the king’s rules we’ll allow ourselves to follow, and which ones we’ll break. “The midwives disobey not only a law, but a direct and explicit order from the king,” Ledder said. “They can’t rely on tweaks. How many baby boys would die while that’s getting worked out? … The decision to let the babies live relied on what God was calling them to do.”
  • God’s got no time for hypothetical courage. Ledder said she heard the term “hypothetical courage” for the first time in 2017. “It’s a person who talks a good game, but then does not follow through when the time comes,” she said. “Hypothetical courage is only true in the hypothetical. It’s simply an act to make someone look good when in fact they’re defaulting in the real world. Thanks be to God, Jesus didn’t show up with hypothetical courage. … Ecumenical Advocacy Days, you are the miracle that Capitol Hill needs right now, that the Christian church needs right now. The God who sits high and looks low, who created heaven and Earth out of chaos … this God has no time for hypothetical courage. God’s looking for women of true courage, and God saw it in two Hebrew midwives.”

“What will God see when God peeks into this room where it happens?” Ledder wondered. “Amen.”

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