The stories we tell become the stories we believe

This is a sermon prepared for the Church of the River based on Exodus 1

So for those of you know my husband, you know that he is a bit of a storyteller. For those of you who know me, I like to get straight to the point. Despite this difference, we both agree that the stories we tell are important.

It feels appropriate since Sam is out of town today, and I have the pulpit, that I should tell you a story that I don’t know that he would ever share behind the pulpit – though, just like he checks in with me for permission, I did get his permission to tell this story.

A few years ago, we were the family with the senior pastor that I worked with, and we were on a school bus headed to the town festival. The fairgrounds didn’t have a lot of parking, so you parked at the local school and were bused over.  We were sitting in the back of the bus with the two older kids who were about eight and five. And as we were on our way, of course we’re chatting with the kids. The older child Charlotte said, “I don’t understand why we have to wear seatbelts in a car, but we don’t have to wear them on a bus. Like sometimes the first couple seats on a bus have seat belts but the rest of them don’t. Why don’t buses have seat belts on every seat?”

If I would have been the first one to answer this question, it would have been age appropriate, clear, and to the point. However, my husband started in first. He said, “Well you know, from the looks of it – this school bus is pretty old. It was probably a school bus back when Sandra and I were your age. And well, back then (he pauses for dramatic effect) back then, you see – there were just a lot of children, like an excess amount of children… and… I instantly cut him off. Because I knew what he was about to say. I also knew that these children really looked up to my husband, and hung on his every word. They were in a very literal phase of their lives and took what’s Sam said very seriously. The last thing I needed was for my boss’ kids to think that school buses were intentional murder machines of children’ THEIR AGE!

A few months later, I surprised Sam for his birthday to go to the opening of Lego Land in Boston. I had borrowed my boss’ kids to go to Lego Land with Sam and I because, understandably, Lego World is not cool with random adults sans children showing up. So, the four of us were on our way, and drove past some wind power turbines. The younger kid, asked “How do wind turbines work?”

Sam started in before I could answer. Always the storyteller. He started in on this elaborate story about how there are hundreds of treadmills hooked up in the basement of wind turbines that people run on to spin the blades, and that these people are motivated by MC Hammer doing his Dance from “Can’t touch this.” To this day, those kids remember the wind turbine story despite not actually knowing who MC Hammer was. And thankfully, they do not remember the bus story. 

The stories we tell become the stories we believe.

Which brings us to today’s scripture, a lesser known story in between two more well-known stories in the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Prior to the passage we read today, is the conclusion of Genesis with of Joseph saving the Egyptians from years of famine. Joseph being an outsider, the Hebrew person, who comes into Egypt to rise from a prisoner to the King’s number two. From there we enter in to the book of Exodus, the book that tells the story of Hebrew people’s journey from slavery to freedom.

The first few verses of Exodus name that Joseph and his brothers have all died, but that the Hebrew people had been “exceedingly fruitful” and have multiplied in Egypt. What will come after this first chapter is a much more well known, and more commonly preached and taught text – the story of the birth of Moses and his journey from the Nile River to Mt. Sanai. 

But here, bookended between two epic tales, is a tale just as epic – that often goes untold. The story of the Hebrew midwives.

Our reading today begins by naming that the story of Joseph had been forgotten. 

The stories we tell become the stories we believe.

The new ruler did not know why all these Hebrew people were in his land. He certainly wasn’t a fan with how many of them there seemed to be. And he did what rulers often do to minority groups, he found ways to oppress the people. He sought to enslave them to ensure that they would not revolt against his rule. 

It is often painful at how easily relatable ancient stories are.

But, Pharoah’s plan didn’t work. Despite grueling conditions, the Hebrew people continued to survive and multiply. So, he did what most rulers SHOULD do, he called in the women. He called in the midwives.

Now, a deep dive into this text reveals that we don’t know if the women called to Pharoah’s court were Hebrew or Egyptian, just that they were midwives to the Hebrew people. They might not have even had the same identity as the women they served, but they served them never the less. Women are awesome.

Interestingly, the midwives in this story are named. So few women are named in the holy texts of many religions. And, keep in mind that these ancient stories were told for generations before they became ancient texts. Details likely forgotten throughout retellings, parts added to keep intrigue – But these names, Shiprah and Puah are remembered.

Clearly, a story the ancestors marked as important to tell.

Pharoah instructs these women to kill all male children born to Hebrew women. In the original language of the scripture, there isn’t really a word that means “religion.” The closest we get to the idea of “religion” is often translated, as it was in today’s text as “Fear.” Fear is a bit off from its original intent – the concept more fully can be translated to mean “to be in complete awe.” To be in complete awe of God. These were faithful women.

When the king questions the midwives as to why they have no done what he commanded, they replied “Well shucks. We keep not getting there in time. Sorry.”

There are countless interpretations these words spoken by these powerful women. 

Unsurprisingly, a lot of Christian writers (cough cough men) have focused throughout the centuries on if these women were lying and what kind of sin it was. Because, you know, that’s an important part of the story – those sneak women (insert eye roll). Yet, these authors had to reconciling what they believe should have been punishment for the women while being confused by the statement that these women later received favor from God.

Other interpretations, including those in the Jewish tradition, wonder a bit more deeply and less legalistically.

One suggestion is that the midwives intentionally dilly dallied on their way to the births of Hebrew women, so that they literally didn’t get there in time. Making it so they weren’t technically lying to Pharaoh, while still following God’s will.

Another idea is that they midwives were actually playing in to what was likely Pharaoh’s feelings and stereotypes towards the Hebrew people – that they were closer to animals than people. These “hearty women” were more like cattle, not needing assistance in birth. This attitude has been painfully repeated by those with power throughout human history. Somehow, we keep forgetting that people are people.

The stories we tell of other people become the stories we believe about other people.

I don’t know about you, but have you ever hung around midwives, or people whose role it is to be a part of the birth process? These people are tough. When I served as a student hospital chaplain, I had the antepartum, postpartum, and NICU wing. 

There is no community quite like the birthing community. In ancient times, it would have been a select group of women who were knowledgeable about the body in ways that us modern readers might minimize. But if the Hebrew people were multiplying, clearly the midwives were doing something right.

This female only space of the midwives, I believe, was a female community at its best – one that is so real and vulnerable, where you literally are letting it all hang out, and there is a tangible divine mutuality.

Based on what I know about groups of women at their best, I believe that their story to Pharaoh was an intentional act of civil disobedience. Not playing by the rules of the powerful, but behaving by the rules of the Beloved.

I assume these skillful women were righteously lying to protect the women they loved. They were protecting women who had just experienced the trauma that is giving birth – a trauma that we super don’t talk about in the public sphere but is definitely talked about in female spaces. The midwives were preventing other women from experiencing a trauma that is all too familiar to many of us in this room – losing a child.

These women, these women changed the course of history by their defiance. And while their names live buried in pages between two men, they, they are the ones who literally birthed the Hebrew people, the people for whom both Judaism and Christianity trace their heritage.

This is a story that we need to tell so that it becomes a story we believe.

We need to be telling more stories of badass women, so that they become the stories we believe. I promised Sam I wouldn’t curse in his pulpit again…oh well.

There are countless women whose stories bare repeating today, and everyday.

A woman who has helped me tell my own story, is researcher and public speaker Brene Brown. Brown’s more than decade of qualitative research began with the topic of shame. She was curious as to what made people more or less prone to experience this base, primitive emotion.

She defines shame as the fear of disconnection, the fear of being unlovable. Shame is the voice in our heads that tells us we are dumb, that tells us we are a terrible person, that tells us we are worthless. Shame is the voice in our head that is on repeat saying “I am not enough.” On the off chance we can navigate that voice, the second voice of shame says, “Who do you think you are?” Shame is an epidemic that is ripping through the stories we tell.

After listening countless stories, Brown found a pattern in people less prone to shame. She calls these people the “wholehearted.” Those that she saw as “wholehearted” had a sense of worthiness. A worthiness that did not come from the external world. Rather, worthiness is seen a sense of love and belonging that is deeply a part of someone’s being. People who are wholehearted, Brown poses, have a sense of courage, compassion, and connection.

Sounds like Shiprah and Puah to me.

The “wholehearted” have courage to tell their story, imperfections and all. They have compassion first for themselves. They have a connection that enables authenticity and douses the pervasive weeds of “shoulds” in life.

This is vulnerability, Brown states. Vulnerability is the ability to let ourselves be fully seen and to know that we are worthy of love and belonging. That is a story we need on repeat. Vulnerability is saying and believing “I am enough.” To be clear, vulnerability is not weakness. Vulnerability is courage, compassion, and connection.

In her first TEDTalk that catapulted Brown to immense popularity, she did an experiment – one she claims that if someone would have told her that the video would have millions views, she would not have done. In her talk, Brown became vulnerable, and told her story. She allowed herself to be fully seen, and know that she is worthy of love and belonging. Brown says, stories are where we need to start with the necessary conversation on vulnerability.

The stories we tell become the stories we believe.

What story do you tell yourself about yourself? Is one rooted in shame or vulnerability?

What story do you tell of this place, of Church of the River? Where have you shared the story of this, and where have you stayed silent?

What story do you tell about the state of our country and our world? Is it one rooted in fear or hope?

And finally – Whose stories are your listening to? Are they stories that are comfortably similar to yours, or ones that challenge you to listen and not react? Are they stories that require you to put on floaties and get in the deep end, or are they surface level and shallow?

The stories we tell become the stories we believe.

Why do you think we spend so much time reading stories to little kids? We are shaping their world. Somewhere along the way, we think we can stories – in pursuit of fact or truth.

But the thing is, this experiment called life is all a beautiful, complicated grand story. And it is our responsibility to share in the fulness of that storytelling – a gift that beloved Sam continues to teach me.

We must tell the stories of powerful women. We must tell the stories of compassion for ourselves. We must tell the stories of the ways that a community of diverse beliefs, down by the River, can bring a sense of healing in our broken world.

As you leave this place today – set aside some time this week to both tell a story that is vulnerable about AND listen to story of a stranger.

Because it is our responsibility to not be like Pharaoh – to not forget the stories of those around us, but to be like the midwives, Shiprah and Puah, faithfully birthing new creation this day and everyday.

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