15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” 17 But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18 So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” 19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” 20 So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong.”
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”
The word of the Lord.
In the last several months, during the long days of summer and the waning days of fall, I have found myself drawn to my couch in my spare or otherwise carved out moments of free time, invited into the lives and stories of a group of midwives who live and work with the poorest populations of Poplar in London’s east end in the late 1950s and early 1960s. BBC aired the first season of Call the Midwife in 2012, the year my son was born, and I followed it religiously for the first 3 seasons. A move and other life transitions put the midwives of Poplar on my shelf for several years, but through conversation and peer pressure from a group of dear friends with who I am bonded for life with this glue called “grad school doctoral cohort,” several of us began watching it again from the beginning.
Call the Midwife, adapted from the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, follows the stories and lives of a community of Anglican nuns who are nurses at Nonnatus House – an established religious community that houses the sisters and a small group of other nurse midwives in the center of the community of Poplar. In any given episode, I find myself delighted by the formidable Sister Evangelina and the eccentric Sister Monica Joan, the loyal Shelagh, the endearing Chummy, and the independent Trixie. I shed tears every time a baby is born – which is often in a show about midwives. And in the stories of these women and the community in which they dwell, I have witnessed the ways in which love enters spaces and heals wounds. And I think I have learned more about what it means to be a pastor from this group of midwives than from any book I’ve read.
But before we turn our imaginations toward the midwives of London’s east end, we begin in ancient Egypt. The first chapter of Exodus, the story of God’s deliverance of the Hebrew people from the bondage of slavery, introduces this epic narrative in a surprising way. Before Moses and Aaron, before the signs and wonders, and before the law inscribed by the very hand of God, the first named characters who are players in this unfolding drama are Shiphrah and Puah, two Hebrew midwives. The text tells us that the Hebrew people, living alongside the Egyptians, were growing in number and strength: “the Israelites were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.” (verse 7) They were so strong, and so prolific, in fact, that when a new king rose to power in Egypt, he proclaims the Hebrews more powerful and numerous than the Egyptians. Fear and power combine into a deadly cocktail and the solution to the “Hebrew problem” is enslavement under the oppression of Egyptian bondage. “But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.” (verse 12) So the Egyptian powers work the Israelite people harder. The text tells us that they were ruthless and made the lives of the Hebrew people bitter. But enslavement is not enough. Enter into the scene, Shiphrah and Puah.
Approached by the king of Egypt himself, these two Hebrew midwives are instructed to kill all of the Hebrew baby boys during the delivery process, but to let the girls live. Do you see the irony in this story? Does the king not realize that his plan to kill the very ones he needs to control and enslave undermines his whole enslavement project? The cycle of fear, power, and oppression is vicious and defies all ethics of basic human reason or decency. The most powerful man in the world, who isn’t even named, by the way, seeks out two ordinary Hebrew women named Shiphrah and Puah to carry out his sordid plan to destroy their own Hebrew people, one by one, in the most vulnerable moment of any person’s life. But Pharaoh, willing to give the daughters of Israel a pass, is ironically subverted by two Hebrew daughters. Shiphrah and Puah say, “no.”
They say no to the powers of injustice.
They say no to death.
At great personal risk, they turn the tables on fear and power, and say “no.”
My friend, Shawna Songer Gaines, says this: “The Midwives in Exodus literally help to deliver Moses, the one who will deliver the people of Israel. Their story of delivering baby boys in the face of violence and oppression casts light on the rest of the Exodus story. Deliverance from the clutches of Egypt is not seen as a military conflict in which one party is the victor and the other the loser. Rather, when we see the children of Israel coming out of the parted waters of the Red Sea, we see a new people being born into the world, bringing with them new possibility for God’s redemption of all creation!”
Not only do Shiphrah and Puah engage the hard work of laboring with mothers in their most vulnerable moments, fully present and bearing witness to the new life being born in them, they bear witness to the new life being born in an entire nation. In the groans and pains of labor; in the throes of violence and oppression, even in these shadowy spaces God is working to bring new life.
And these midwives not only have a front row seat to witness what God is up to, they partner with God in bringing it to life.
Move forward a few hundred years. Another king, wrapped up in the systems of fear and power, needs to figure out just how many people are under (or not fully under) Roman rule and occupation. Joseph of Nazareth, betrothed to Mary of Nazareth, returns to the city of Bethlehem. Mary, the story we think we know so well in our Christmas hymns and readings, is with child. In Luke’s account, what happens next is very straightforward, told without fanfare: “While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” It’s not an insignificant detail that the Greek word translated here as “inn” is used later in Luke’s text and translated as “upper room,” the location where Jesus and his disciples eat Passover together before Jesus’ death. And the best scholarship we have on what it would have actually been like in the 1st century Middle East tells us that what is described here in Luke’s birth narrative is a typical home in which the “upper room,” the “inn” in our text, would have been reserved to host travelers. The ground level room would have been the family room – and in that culture, the animals would have been brought in to join the family for the night. They didn’t have stables for their animals in 1st century middle eastern culture – we’ve read that into the story.
So Luke tells us that there is no space in the guest room. It’s full. When it comes time to birth God into the world, this feat is accomplished by a travel-weary teenage girl and her husband, who are completely dependent on the hospitality of others – and not just a private “you stay in your room; I’ll stay in mine” kind of hospitality – oh no. Mary gave birth to Jesus in a home – right in the middle of the cooking, cleaning, playing, eating, animal care-taking. Right in the middle of ordinary human life. God with us. Did Mary have a midwife to witness, to labor with, and to bring the new life into the world?
She probably had several.
I love what Sarah Bessey says here: “Birth is a thin place. It’s always too much – too much pain, too much waiting, too much joy or sorrow, too much love, and far too messy with too little control.” So contrary to our westernized telling of this story, Bessey continues, “Mary was absolutely not alone at the moment of birth. She was almost certainly attended by skilled and present women, likely even community midwives. In fact, she probably had too many helpers given the circumstances. Mary wasn’t alone. She was in a warm home, surrounded by women who had walked the road ahead of her, who were able to care for her.”
In this great reversal of every hope and expectation for the long awaited Messiah King, Jesus is birthed among ordinary people, likely surrounded by a large family with children and animals in the home of Jewish peasants. And in the verses that follow, it is a group of ordinary shepherds who are greeted by the angelic hosts, who join Mary and Joseph in bearing witness to this miracle in Bethlehem. Like Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives, Joseph and Mary say “yes” to God.
Yes to risk of public ridicule.
Yes to an uncertain future.
Yes to the new life being born in Mary.
Like Shiphrah and Puah – Mary and Joseph, the Bethlehem peasants, and the shepherds bear witness to the new life being born not only in and for an entire nation, but for the sake of the whole world.
And so we turn again, to the midwives of London’s east end. In the Christmas episode of the very first season, we meet Mrs. Jenkins, reclusive and wrecked with the years’ old pain of losing multiple children in a work house after the blitz in WWII. Mrs. Jenkins is discovered living in a condemned building near Nonnatus house. The midwives, who also serve their community as home visit nurses, are invited into the space of this heart-broken, reluctant, fear-filled woman. Jenni and Sister Evangelina prepare a bath, and Jenni struggles to get Mrs. Jenkins shoes off and discovers that they are literally stuck to her skin. Sister Evangelina, always the pragmatist, suggests Vaseline, and they are able to pull the shoe off. Her foot, dirty, bloodied, toenails overgrown and mis-shapen, is revealed and Mrs. Jenkins looks away in horror. “They shame me,” she mumbles through tears, and Sister Evangelina replies, “No. Not anymore.” They slowly and gently help Mrs. Jenkins peel off layer after layer of soiled clothing, as a lone soprano voice sings, “O Come oh Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.” They bathe her with the utmost care and respect for her dignity as the voice continues, “that mourns in lowly exile here…until the son of God appears. Rejoice, rejoice. Emmanuel. Shall come to thee oh Israel.”
Though not under oppression or occupation by Egypt or Rome, Poplar is a community filled with the oppression of poverty, disease, and hunger, forgotten and overlooked, oppressed by the systems that have failed to care for the most vulnerable among them. Like Shiphrah and Puah, like Mary and Joseph, these midwives engage the hard work of laboring with a community, fully present and bearing witness to both tragic death and new life being born in them. And like Shiphrah and Puah and Mary and Joseph these midwives not only have a front row seat to witness what God is up to, even in the most shadowed spaces, they partner with God in bringing it to life.
God is always bringing forth new life in us and around us.
Who will bear witness?
Who will say yes to God and no to the powers and principalities that kill and destroy? Who will be present in the pain and the waiting?
Who are the midwives in your life?
Is God raising you up as a midwife in someone else’s life?
The night before I sat down to write this sermon, I watched the Christmas episode from season 7 of Call the Midwife, and the end of the episode portrayed a Christmas pageant hosted by the mother house orphanage, home to many children with physical or cognitive disabilities, in which all of the midwives, sisters, and characters from the show were present. As the screen panned and focused on both the children and the different audience members, I was reminded of the radical call and gift that is hospitality. We host – we create spaces of hospitality for others, and we are hosted – we graciously accept the gifts from those around us. It is a posture of mutuality. It is the posture in which God showed up in flesh – Emmanuel, God with us.
As we wait together in this advent season for the coming of Christ – a story told and remembered of his first coming – a hopeful expectation of his coming in our everyday moments of longing and waiting – and a joyful anticipation of his final coming, may we orient ourselves to the gifts of hospitality both given and received, and may we bear witness to the new life breaking in. Come, Lord Jesus.