Shuck and Jive

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Praise For Midwives: Sunday's Sermon

The Exodus
John Shuck
First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
January 13th, 2008

Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9He said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.’ 11Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labour. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labour. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.

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.’ 17But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, ‘Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?’ 19The 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.’ 20So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong.
Exodus 1:8-20

I don’t know how my mother walked her trouble down
I don’t know how my father stood his ground
I don’t know how my people survive slavery
I do remember, that’s why I believe
I don’t know how the rivers overflow their banks
I don’t know how the snow falls and covers the ground
I don’t know how the hurricane sweeps through the land
every now and then
Standing in a rainstorm, I believe
I don’t know how the angels woke me up this morning soon
I don’t know how the blood still runs thru my veins
I don’t know how I rate to run another day
Standing in a rainstorm I believe
My God calls to me in the morning dew
The power of the universe knows my name
Gave me a song to sing and sent me on my way
I raise my voice for justice I believe

--Berneice Johnson Reagan

Since the Enlightenment, the role and the authority of the Bible has been drastically reduced. The Bible was once believed to tell the cosmic story and its author was none other than God himself. Within this earlier view, the Bible told us the origins of the universe and it confidently pointed to its cosmic end in the heavenly city where according to the Book of Revelation:

“Death will be no more;
Mourning and crying and pain
Will be no more,
For the first things have
Passed away.” (Rev. 21:4)

Modernity has eroded this authority. And it is no use pretending otherwise. In the modern view, with the insight of science, we now know the following about the Bible:

God is not its author. God is a literary character. The character called ‘God’ represents through story and legend the creativity of a particular group of human beings.

Not only is “God” a literary character, Adam, Abraham, Joshua, Moses, and David are also literary characters. It is unlikely that any of them even existed as historical persons. There is no evidence for any of them outside of the Bible itself. No serpent in the garden, no fall from grace, no flood, no tower of Babel, no parting of the Red Sea, no wandering in the wilderness, no conquering of Canaan, no great Israelite monarchy.

The Bible does not tell the story of the origins of the universe or of humankind. It does not tell us of the end of the universe or of humankind. The Bible is the collection of stories and legends written in their final form between 2500 and 1800 years ago. These stories parallel and in some cases draw from mythologies from other cultures.

The Bible is a human product that is mostly fiction. It is invaluable for telling us about the people who wrote it. It can have great value for us who read it. The wisdom in it can at times be profound. But it is a fallible, marvelous, beautiful, ugly, human masterpiece.

Once we finally say that, we experience both liberation and loss. We are liberated from needing to believe in a pre-modern cosmology. We are liberated from believing in a God who at times is nothing more than a tyrant with superpowers. We are liberated from closing our minds when we open the Bible.

We are liberated to appreciate the Bible in a new way. We can see these stories as windows into the human psyche and into the collective psyche of the Western world. These are our myths. Through them we can see where we came from. We can also be liberated from being controlled by them.

Seeing the Bible as a human product is liberating. It is also a loss. The Bible until recently provided for us a cosmic story. It provided a place for us in its cosmic drama. Even though our present may not go as well as we would like at times, there is hope at the end in the celestial city. We mattered. We were all a part of the Divine plan.

Modern science has shown us that the Bible’s cosmic story is not a cosmic story after all. It is a very small story of a particular group of people. The God of the Bible the product of great imagination and irrepressible human creativity.

We feel the loss. We feel hung out there in a 13.7 billion year old universe that appears meaningless and random. We have lost our cosmic bearings. We have lost the story that helped us fit into the universe. That story no longer has the authority it once had. It has lost its credibility.

Our perception of the universe has changed drastically. Compared to the tidy story of the Bible and the Christian creed, we feel lost and insignificant. That is the loss. Liberation and loss are sisters. They are the yin and yang of life.

Preachers are told not to take something away without providing something. That is a tall order. Because it is a tall order, preachers, in my experience, including myself on occasion, just preach the same old stuff because we have found nothing with which to replace it that is meaningful. We continue to preach the Bible as if it still could tell us something about our origins and our end and about who we are.

I think it is good to deconstruct even if you don’t know what you are going to construct. Living in ambiguity is part of living. That said, I am and we are in the process of discovering a bigger story. It is the story that includes the Bible but is much larger. It includes all the sacred stories and is larger than them all.

Yes, we have lost something. We have lost a great deal. But this loss liberates us to find something more grand. This grand story is nothing less than the story of our 13.7 billion year history. It is the story of the Universe. It is our Evolutionary Story.

Our human stories, our sacred stories, our histories and her-stories, science and natural history, are all part of that Great Story, the story of the Universe. The task of religion is to find meaning and joy in what is real. Our evolutionary story is the most real thing we have going. It is a story that needs telling and a story that needs hearing.

In this time of loss, and perhaps not yet liberation, it may be that our sacred texts will point a way forward. In the midst of this big story of the Universe are the smaller stories found in our sacred texts. These give insights to the human psyche and our social relationships. They are stories about meaning which is why they feature God. They are the stories of people who also felt both loss and liberation time and time again.

We come to today to the central story of the Hebrew Scriptures. This is the pivotal story of the Torah. It is the story of the Exodus from Egypt. It is the story of liberation from bondage. It is the big screen motion picture story of the ten plagues and the parting of Red Sea. It is no use trying to fit this story into human history or into natural history.

Yet the story is very real in its most important sense. It is about freedom. The forces of life and of the Universe are on the side of freedom. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that the Universe itself bends toward justice. Forces of oppression, no matter how strong are unable to quench the human spirit.

The story of the Exodus has been a story of inspiration throughout history. This was especially true in our own country for enslaved African-Americans. The white preachers would quote the Bible and say: “Slaves, be obedient to your masters.” Then the slaves would have their own worship services in secret. They would tell each other of the story of Moses and of freedom from slavery. They would sing spirituals like this one:

Oh freedom, oh freedom,
Oh Freedom over me.
And before I’ll be a slave,
I’ll be buried in my grave,
And go home to my Lord and be free.

The stories from Exodus and the spirituals were the spiritual power throughout the period of slavery in America. Tom Faigin who is a lecturer on American Folk Music wrote: “Negro Spirituals were the first uniquely American music to come out of this country.”

They provided slaves with the hope to carry on in the midst of overwhelming adversity. God did it before, God would do it again. These spirituals were created in the fields. The white slave owners encouraged singing as it made the slaves more productive. But they didn’t pay attention to the lyrics. As reading was forbidden and most of the slaves were illiterate, they snatched pieces of scripture that they overheard in white worship services and created their own songs:

Well if I could I surely would
Stand on the rock where Moses stood
Pharaoh's army got drownded
O Mary don't you weep

Well Mary wore three links and chains
On every link was Jesus' name
Pharaoh's army got drownded
O Mary don't you weep

The story begins:

Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.

This means that new king did not honor the deal. During a period of famine, Joseph sold grain for food to the people in exchange for their livestock and eventually their land. They worked then for Pharaoh as slaves on his land. It wasn’t the greatest deal. But when you are starving your choices are limited. All the people became enslaved to Pharaoh. The deal was that four-fifths of the food would be for the people and one-fifth for Pharaoh.

As more and more and more wealth became concentrated in Pharaoh’s kingdom, be began to have big dreams. Paranoid that the Hebrew people would eventually seek their freedom he orders them into forced labor. Pharaoh does not honor the deal. However, the more the people are oppressed, the more they multiply. Finally, in an act of extreme paranoia, Pharaoh orders the deaths of all male children.

He tells the two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, to kill the children if they are male. The midwives refuse his order. They do a little Shuck and Jive. Do you know what the phrase “Shuck and Jive” means?

"To shuck and jive" originally referred to the intentionally misleading words and actions that African-Americans would employ in order to deceive racist Euro-Americans in power, both during the period of slavery and afterwards.

"Shucking and jiving" was a tactic of both survival and resistance. A slave, for instance, could say eagerly, "Oh, yes, Master," and have no real intention to obey. Or an African-American man could pretend to be working hard at a task he was ordered to do, but might put up this pretense only when under observation. Both would be instances of "doin' the old shuck 'n jive."

From the text:

17But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, ‘Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?’ 19The 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.’

God, according to the text, is pleased with the midwives and with their shuckin’ and jivin’.

The story of liberation begins with two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, who disobey the authority of Pharaoh, the authority of death and choose life. Before YHWH even comes on the scene, these two women make a choice. Their choice is not to participate in the injustice of Pharaoh. Shiphrah and Puah are the models of civil disobedience.

They feared God, says the text. They followed a higher calling than that of the oppressors in power. The first step toward liberation is to decide which side you are on. Freedom and human dignity is a good side to take.

This past week marked the 6th anniversary since the first prisoners arrived at Guantanamo Bay. Over 800 men and boys have been held without trial and without charge. They are denied Habeas Corpus. Many have been exposed to interrogation techniques that amount to nothing less than torture.

This past Friday, Amy Goodman of DemocracyNow interviewed Michael Ratner, the President of the Center for Constitutional Rights. Ratner said in the interview:

We’ve been in the Supreme Court now for the third time and awaiting a decision on whether there’s even the fundamental right to go to court for Guantanamo detainees. So think about that: six years, January 11, 2002, we have not yet had one federal court hearing for a Guantanamo detainee. Supreme Court twice has said you can have it. Twice, Congress, and many Democrats, sadly, going along with it, have said we’ll take away that right. And now we’re again waiting it.

So Guantanamo really stands for, in my view, everything—almost everything that’s wrong in this so-called war on terror: indefinite detentions without trial, torture, disappearances. And I say “stands for” because we understand it’s not the only institution that the protests are trying to close today. Bagram has 650 people, no lawyers visiting, torture going on. Secret sites all over the world.

And yet, this country continues on its way…. I think the American people have their usual ostrich—or at least a lot of them—their ostrich-like mentality where what the rest of the world thinks does not affect them. But, of course, it should, and it does, because this has really painted America as iconic in the Muslim world, particularly, but in the whole world of human rights, as essentially a Pinochet-like dictatorship. Let’s remember, that’s what Pinochet did. He ran Operation Condor, picked up people all over the world, took them into penal sites, tortured them and killed them. What is the difference, I would ask the American people, between us and Pinochet on this?

I began this sermon talking about the Bible and the Universe Story. Many folks insist that we believe the Bible as written. Well, I believe the Bible, too. But the Bible does not tell us how the Universe was created. It doesn’t make us any more faithful to think that God created the world in six days or that Moses parted the Red Sea.

I don’t believe that. But I do believe the Bible.

The Bible does tell us if we will listen about enduring principles of justice and human dignity. It tells us again and again and again that the Pharaohs of this world who oppress others end badly.

It tells us that oppression, imprisonment, torture, and lies will be exposed.

The Bible tells us that it is the people, the midwives, the Shiphrahs and the Puahs of this world, who are the ones who begin to make the changes.

They make the changes because they begin with a simple question.

What is right and what is wrong?

Who will we obey?

Once they know the difference between justice and injustice…

Once they realize whose side they are on…

they refuse to participate in injustice.

and once they make that choice, we read:

So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong.


  1. I was blown away by this sermon, John - beginning to end. Thank you.
    Yes, there is loss with liberation. But I suspect the losses that come with liberation are not as great, in the long run, as those of continued tyrrany and oppression.

  2. Humm...

    If I may...

    This is two sermons, not one. I liked the second sermon. The first one you already preached a couple of times, and it doesn't really support the second one.

    I know, its an ongoing project, and you'll come back to it from time to time. But for today's text, the second sermon is really the one your meant to preach, the one that came to you after you started writing the first, my guess.

    I would have suggest saving the first one for later, and fleshing out the second a little more:

    People sometimes think they are too small, and what can they do to change things? The answer is, you always change things, on way or the other.

    The question always is which >way< do you want to change them, not whether you want to change them.

    That is the calling of all God's people. We have a way for changing things.

    Nice moral of the story.

    Sorry, critiquing sermons after the fact is not fair. Your congregation is in a strange place. I guess they need a strange guy to lead them through it... They are lucky to have you ;-)

  3. Thanks, Snad! Glad you are blogging again!

    Hey Jodie, you may.

    I agree. My preaching profs would have been all over it. But to put a positive spin, today they got two sermons for the price of one.

    Thanks for the nice words!

  4. John,
    First I want to say that Sunday's service was excellent! The sermon was great, and I especially enjoyed the "children's time". It was great how you got through to those youngsters without boring them. Many do not realize that the attention span is so limited that you need to be quick, entertaining, and to the point. (Of course, it does not get better as we get older either!) MOSES! Secondly, Jim and I want to compliment the church family at First Pres. on how welcoming they were. We had so many people come up and introduce themselves, and we had some great conversations with them as well. We even exchanged some phone numbers to keep in touch. We are both looking forward to joining all of you once we make the move up there!
    Gods peace,
    Scott & Jim

  5. Hey Scott and Jim!

    Thank you! It was cool meeting you! I am so looking forward to you moving here this summer! Glad the church folks were well-behaved. : )