Don’t you think it’s fascinating that within a congregation of 60 or so people we have at least four people who have been midwives? I fully expect that if I name the ones I can think of, someone will say ‘And me too!’. We are fortunate and blessed to have those who have encouraged babies into this world – and under all sorts of circumstances no doubt – in this country and overseas (we have at least two former missionary midwives) – wanted and planned babies, children who weren’t expected, those who were healthy, those struggling for life.. an extraordinary gift to the world of caring, nurturing and delivering. I think we should be proud of our midwives..
But I want to say today that we have more than four midwives.. that there is a sense in which all of us are called to be midwives; men or women, old or young, whoever we are. And even more, there is a sense in which we are all being born – and in which God is a midwife to us and Jesus the midwife of a new kind of humanity.. God is a strong deliver – and midwife a powerful way of thinking of the God who asks us to breathe deeply of the Holy Spirit, to push for justice and to nurture life in the world. Today we are all midwives and today we are all born anew.. We come to worship on Sunday because it’s the first day of the week and we want to begin again, to be born once more, as new human beings who are beginning again on the great adventure of life.
And we come because for a lot of our days, and when we watch the news on TV or when we try to move our increasingly stiff limbs and work our sluggish brains it doesn’t feel like we are being born at all – it feels more like we are dying. And it can feel as though the world is dying too… as though the greatest times are over – democracy slides into farce, Great Britain doesn’t seem so great anymore if ever it was, and the Great British Bake Off has moved to Channel 4 and we can’t believe it will be so good… It can sometimes feel as though we are among the dying – whether that’s the church, or our little bit of the church, or our own long-lived days… It’s a long while since most of us were slapped on the behind by a midwife.. But we have been promised new life, new birth, a life that is defined by eternity and not mortality, a new kind of life that’s full of joy and hope and promise, even in the face of death.. So we ought to be familiar with midwives, open to new life, waiting to be born…How can we find this reality? Well, I think we can find it here, this Sunday and every Sunday… and I think we can learn a bit about what that new life might look like..
But, first, let’s remind ourselves of the Bible story that we heard today, an amazing story about two midwives, two brave women who were part of the resistance against Pharaoh. They were part of the resistance against Pharaoh’s ill treatment of the Hebrew people who had become his slaves.
We know this story not only from the Bible but from the world we still live in, a story of how one people oppresses another, of how one people accuses another of breeding too fast, having too many babies. ‘They will outnumber us’ say the Protestants of the Catholics, say the Gentiles of the Jews, say the Sunnis of the Yazzidis, says the white supremacists of the African Americans, say the white British of the migrants… it’s a story as old and as familiar as any. And in this case Pharaoh tries three ways of cutting down the population. First he tries to work the Hebrews so hard that they die young or have no energy for breeding. But however hard the task masters drive the workers, they still have babies, because babies mean hope and the promise of a future. So that doesn’t work. Life still comes and babies are still born. So then Pharaoh asks the midwives, the ones who help the Hebrew women, to catch the male babies while the women are on the birthing stool and just let the girl babies live. But the midwives just can’t do it – and when Pharaoh asks why this isn’t working they tell him what people are often keen to believe about people they despise, that they give birth too quickly and easily, and so the babies are born and already thriving before the midwives get there… So that doesn’t work either. And so then Pharaoh just tells all his people to throw any Hebrew baby boys into the river. And that seems to work a bit better, at least better enough that Moses has to be hidden, ironically in the river… so that he could be rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter… And the biblical writers tell us that God rewards the midwives for their faithfulness and goodness in wriggling out of killing any babies, by giving them families of their own.
This story has several potential ‘morals’ and meanings… I’ve often heard this story used to say that it means that whoever we are, and however humble, we can resist tyrants and oppressors. As I read it this time it reminded me of the story I saw told recently in a film, the story of Otto and Elise Hampel who resisted Hitler by placing protest postcards in public places in Berlin between 1940 and 1943, until they were caught. It’s a story of bravery and steadfastness in the face of suffering. And it’s a story of being brave just with what you have, with whatever skills and opportunities you are given. You don’t have to be Desmond Tutu or Dietrich Bonhoeffer to be faithful – you can be just who you are – like those Hebrew midwives. You can do it by giving to Christian Aid, by writing a letter to the Gazette, by buying Fairly traded products.. You can do it. You can do more than you think to resist and challenge the ways of death and injustice and suffering..
But somehow I want more than that. Somehow I want a promise that more is possible, for me, for you and for the world. And the story of the midwives gives us, I think, a hint of that promise too.
This week I saw a speech on the internet that had me riveted to the spot. A Sikh woman was speaking at an interfaith service – a Watchnight service – to welcome in the New Year. She was speaking about the way it’s easy to feel just now that we live in a time of death. There’s terrorism for a start. Then there’s earthquakes, floods and storms. There’s what feels like the decay of our politics. Not to mention climate change, cholera in the Yemen and a rise in racism and xenophobia even in gentle places like the one we live in..
But this Sikh woman said we should not let death win. She said that as people of faith we should be listening to the midwives. We should listen to those who tell us, even when we are on the crest of great pain, to breathe… to pause and to take in a good breath, a good spirit, and to remember who we are and what we are doing. And we should remember that then the midwives tell us to ‘push’, to keep on pushing for the right thing, for life and goodness and hope and justice for everyone. Keep breathing in and then keep pushing – and just keep believing that new life will come and that life will change forever for the good. It was a powerful speech. ‘Breathe’ and ‘push’ – let’s do it..
I can remember that when in my own life I had most to do with a midwife I was really scared. Scared of the pain, scared I might suffer beyond what I could take, scared I might not love the child to be born, scared that life would never be the same. I was glad of the voice that told me to breathe and then told me, at the right time, to push. And, of course, I was elated when life came, even as I was bruised and tired. And when I was accompanying my own daughter as she gave birth with a large, determined African midwife beside us I was glad to encourage her to give life to the world, to breathe in time with her and to help her as she, just like the Hebrew women, was on a birthing stool.
Today I think that being a Christian is really like being a midwife. We want life to come into the world, life that’s good and new and full of hope and possibility. We practice prayer (‘breathe’) and we call for justice (we ‘push’ and we keep pushing, until justice comes). We are those who know what it’s like to see death, but we are always those who want life to come and who are willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen. As we encourage each other in life and faith we hold one another’s hands and say ‘breathe’ and ‘push’. Even as we confront old age and death together, we pray with each other and we encourage each other to keep going and to keep longing and hoping and working for a better world. Even with our dying breaths, we want those breaths to be ones that are part of the push for a better, more joyful, more wonderful world.
And, you know, that God is like a midwife, one who teaches us to breathe and push and then take care of the life waiting to be born. God is the one who breathes within us, who pushes us out into the world and who knows what love and care we need if we are to thrive. God may be ‘Our Father’ and our mother, but God is also the midwife of a new humankind.
There’s a great story that the theologian Paul Tillich once told. At the Nuremburg War crime trials a witness appeared who had lived for a time in a grave in a Jewish graveyard in Poland. He and others were hiding there. In a grave nearby a woman gave birth to a boy and the old gravedigger assisted. When the newborn child uttered his first cry, the old man prayed, ‘Great God, have you finally sent the Messiah to us? For who else than the Messiah can be born in a grave?’
In the world of the Kingdom of God, gravediggers become midwives. In the Kingdom of God old men and women become those who bring forth life and life surges strong, even in the place of death.
We are a church that now has no children and not really even any people of child-bearing age. You might think that is a tragedy – and it’s something that we would probably all love to change. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t be mid-wives, that we can’t tell each other and other people and the town we belong to to ‘breathe’ and ‘push’ and let life be honoured and cared for. We may have four or so people who have worked as midwives, but I’d like to think that we are all midwives in this other sense, all those who are encouraging life to come forth and people to find happiness and fulfilment and the peace of a sleeping newborn. I think we can do that.
Jesus took Peter aside once and told him that he would build his church on him and that he would give him the keys of the Kingdom of heaven – and whoever he bound on earth would be bound in heaven and whoever he set free would be set free.. That’s quite a responsibility. Jesus had set Peter loose into life – and the only deal was that Peter would then have the power to set people free himself. And of course, you don’t have to be a Pope to be in the succession of Peter – that’s us too folks, all of us, the men and the women, the old and the young.. the strong and the weaker ones.. It’s our call to be midwives of a new, free world and midwives of people being reborn. There are no shifts in this work – this is a morning, noon and night- time call. So people, let’s ‘breathe’ with our praying and let’s ‘push’ with our living, so that anyone who comes anywhere near this church – the building or its people – will know that new life is possible at any time, that freedom is coming and that all can be reborn in the Kingdom of God. Amen.