Exodus 1:8 – 2:10
October 4, 2014
You might recognize the name Elizabeth Gilbert as the author of the bestselling novel Eat, Pray, Love. Along with her fiction writing, Gilbert also writes and speaks about creativity – how it works and how it sometimes doesn’t work. She tells stories about her own experiences with writer’s block and the fear of failure that can stop creativity dead in its tracks.
“Fear and creativity are conjoined twins,” she says. And what I see people doing in their lives is they're so afraid of their fear that they end up trying to kill it. And when they kill it, they also kill their creativity because creativity is going into the uncertain, and the uncertain is always scary.
And so what I've had to figure out how to do over the years is to create a sort of mental construct in which I make a lot of space to coexist with fear. To just say to it, hey, fear, listen, creativity - your conjoined twin sister - and I are about to go on a road trip. I understand you'll be joining us because you always do, but you don't get to decide anything about this journey that we're going on. But you can come. And I know that you'll be in the backseat in panic but we're going - mommy's driving. And we're going anyway.
And you just take it along with you. And that seems to work for me.
Pharaoh let fear sit in the driver’s seat. He was the richest, most powerful man in his nation, but he was afraid of the Hebrew people. They had never done anything to suggest they were enemies of Egypt, but they were…different…and there were…lots of them. Pharaoh did not know the story of their ancestor Joseph and how he saved Egypt and his own people from the famine. The king was unwilling to risk trusting the people he regarded as foreigners. So he made slaves of them, and set them to hard labor
Even as slaves, the Hebrew population continued to grow, which made Pharaoh even more nervous and fearful. “They are not for us,” he thought, “therefore they must be against us.” His fear was so great that he planned an act of genocide: killing all the Hebrew male children. Such a plan had to be kept secret, though. Which meant that Pharaoh, himself, condescended to speak in person to two Hebrew midwives, two female slaves. He must have been desperate indeed even to think of doing such a thing.
The two women, Shiprah and Puah, must have been terrified. Despite their fear, however, they refused to follow Pharaoh’s orders. They were able to keep their fear in the back seat. And because fear was not in charge of where they were going, they were able to let creativity into the front seat. They came up with a very creative excuse for allow the Hebrew baby boys to survive.
“The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women. They are much more vigorous. They have their babies so quickly we can’t even get there in time.”
Pharaoh, having ceded all rational thought to fear, believed them. By refusing to let fear get the upper hand, the midwives, Shiprah and Puah, found a courageously creative solution to what must have seemed like an insurmountable problem.
Hold that thought, and stick with me here. Because now we’re going to talk about money.
Tell fear to get back into the back seat.
Talking about money does elicit our fear, doesn’t it? Especially talking about money in public. Bringing up religion or politics is considered rude some situations. But bringing up money is always bad form.
When was the last time you were part of a conversation in which people shared how much money they made? Possibly never.
Or how much you budget for dining out or vacations? Unlikely.
We might complain about how expensive something is, or brag about how much we saved on a great bargain. But to reveal our personal financial situation – that is a very intimate, delicate thing.
When was the last time you talked with someone other than your spouse or partner about how much you give to the church?
Even talking about it in private seems scary. Maybe you grew up in a family like mine – no money talk. I never knew how much money my parents made, what our family budget looked like, how much they gave to charitable causes. When I started in ministry and learned that I was expected to give 10% of my income, I was stunned! 10%??
This month, the Finance Committee is not only handing out Estimate of Giving cards with an encouraging cover letter, they are also asking you to think more deeply about giving, giving money. Not just what percentage you might give to the church, or how you might support the 2015 budget, but how giving might change you, challenge you, bring you closer to God.
The Finance Committee members and I hope each family will take home a little devotional book written by Bishop Robert Schnase called Extravagant Generosity. We hope you will use it throughout the month of October, in preparation for making a decision about your own giving for 2015.
The book isn’t about the courageous, creative midwives or Moses or even the book of Exodus at all. But it is not coincidence, I think, that much of what it says about generosity can also be applied to what our biblical texts say about moving forward: it takes a willingness to let the old stuff go, and step out into the new. Extravagant generosity and moving into an unknown future require courage, and creativity, and deep faith. Extravagant generosity and moving into an unknown future also build courage, and creativity, and deeper faith. Both require stepping out, taking a risk, giving yourself for the sake of someone else.
People give because generosity helps them achieve God’s purposes in themselves. By giving, we develop the inner qualities of generosity. Generosity is not a spiritual attribute someone acquires apart from the practice of giving. We cannot become generous and cling to everything we have without letting go.
Now listen to that sentence with “courage” and “taking risks” substituted for “generosity” and “giving”:
People are willing to take risks because doing so helps them achieve God’s purposes in themselves. By acting boldly, we develop the inner qualities of courage. Being courageous is not a spiritual attribute someone acquires apart from the practice of acting that way. We cannot become bold, courageous people and – at the same time – cling to everything we have without letting go.
Maturing as a human being, maturing as a Christian means deciding who’s going to drive the car: fear, consumerism, peer pressure, the need for status or power; or generosity, courage, creativity, and love and respect for God.
Schnase points out that despite the fact that we Americans “live in better houses, earn more money, drive nicer cars, spend more on entertainments, and enjoy greater conveniences than 90% of the world’s population, or than we ourselves enjoyed thirty years ago, we never have enough.”
“We are surrounded by inducements that make us painfully aware of what we lack, more so than of what we have. Without beliefs and intentional practices that counter-balance the influences of culture, we feel discontent no matter how much we have.”
“How do we maintain perspective and balance? How do we avoid preoccupation with the things that do not ultimately satisfy, and cultivate those things that do?”
We practice. We practice being generous, we practice being courageous, we practice being creative – until it becomes part of our nature, reflecting God’s nature.
The midwives Shiprah and Puah had had a lot of practice at being generous, courageous and creative, even before they were called up in front of Pharaoh. That’s what being a midwife is. Bishop Deb Kiesey pointed this out in her sermon last June at the Opening Service of our West Michigan Annual Conference.
(Bishop Deb and her husband Brad are often with us on Sunday mornings, but she is preaching in Romeo this morning. She gave me permission to quote her!)
Speaking on this passage from Exodus, the Bishop pointed out that “During the long night of birth, the mid-wife is the one called on to keep faith in the miracle that is about to happen - to help us look beyond the struggle and pain of the moment and to keep faith in the miracle of the future. And so the midwife is there, not to replace the mother's work, but to support her in the struggle to bring about new life.”
“Now,” Bishop Deb said, “we have the incredible opportunity to be mid-wives to a new future for the United Methodist Church.” She was speaking to the Conference, but the same is true for us here, at University UMC.
“The world will continue to change … as will our lives…and our church. When the way seems frightening, or our steps uncertain, let us remember Shiphrah and Puah - who stood before the Pharaoh,” frightened, but not allowing their fear to direct their actions.
“And because they were able to do that, to act with courage and creativity, another unknown Hebrew woman was able to give birth to a son, and instead of throwing him into the Nile, to place him in a basket in the river - and the world is given Moses.
“And centuries later, another Hebrew woman gives birth in a stable and gives the world a Savior.
“Courageous creations. That's what we all are,” Bishop Deb said. “That is what we are called to be - new creations in Christ.” It’s how we are called to live…creatively, courageously, generously. Thinking about the future and our part in shaping it. Putting fear in the back seat and faith in the driver’s seat.
I’m not going to ask you to share with the person sitting next to you how much money you make, or how much you give to the church. (If you’ve been sitting through this sermon with that fear tapping on your shoulder from the back seat, you can relax now. Tell fear to sit down and stop bugging you.)
But I am going to ask you to look at the insert in your bulletin. Find your family’s income on the side that says “Whatever Measure You Give.” See what 4% of that looks like…and 8%....and 10%.
Now flip the insert over to the side that says “Forward Together.” Where are you on the step chart? How can you practice courage, and creativity, and generosity in order to take one step up?
On the night he was betrayed, Jesus sat at this table with those he loved, and those who would betray him. Not just Judas, who turned him into the Roman authorities, but the others who – after his arrest -- let fear sit in the driver’s seat.
On the night he was betrayed, I believe that Jesus felt fear. Certainly in the garden the next evening, he felt fear. Jesus was afraid, but he called upon the courage, and the creativity, and the generosity that he had practiced his whole life. And instead of running away, or lashing out, or compromising what he believed in and stood for, he broke the bread, and shared the cup, and told his disciples to remember him.
He asks us to do the same.