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Midwives and Ministry

02 September 2019

A minister in the Presbyterian Church, Anna is Peter Marshall Professor of Preaching at Columbia Theological Seminary, Georgia, and author of Rehearsing Scripture: Discovering God’s Word in Community (2018).

<strong> Midwives and Ministry</strong>

Exodus 1.8-22; Romans 12.1-2

There’s a British series on Netflix, called, Call the Midwife. I’ve never watched it because I’ve done it, but the title still gets me, every time I scroll past. ‘Call the midwife’ isn’t something you say in casual conversation at a social event. It’s what you say when it’s clear that labour has begun in earnest, and these aren’t just Braxton Hicks warm ups, but real live, ‘Whoa—okay, that hurt’ contractions, and you know we’re not just practicing anymore. We’re not just reading about it. We’re in it, so it’s time for professional help, someone with steady hands and a strong stomach, who has been down this road a few times and knows it is possible to do what you now realize is clearly impossible, so ‘Call the midwife’ is in the imperative mood: non-negotiable: Call! And while it’s probably not the calmest phone call you will ever make, it’s tempered by what you pray is waiting, over that long horizon of labour. But first it’s a long night, and a lot of unknowns, and you need a witness, someone who knows how bloody and hard it is to bring new life into this world.

Pharaoh called the midwife. You don’t have to have Netflix to find that show; it’s on the evening news every night. Pharaoh called the midwife, or midwives, but not for his household. Not because he had any interest in new life for Hebrews; he didn’t. Pharaoh called the midwives as part of his Make Egypt Great Again platform, to do the exact opposite of what midwives are trained to do: to deliver death. It didn’t really work out the way he thought it would. The midwives did not do as the king of Egypt commanded. I’d like to think some of that was owing to the superb education they received at Midwives General Seminary, from which they earned the Master of Arts in Practical Midwifery, and the M.Mid degree, with a host of splendid new verbs to make them imaginative and resilient midwives for God’s changing world, but I know better, or rather, the text does. The midwives may have had excellent training. But one verb was all they needed to defy Pharaoh, and they’d had it all along. The midwives feared God. Not Pharaoh. God. And fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

So, here’s an interesting metaphor for a Christian leader: a midwife who fears God. A person who is prepared to walk with others who are labouring. A person with steady hands and a strong stomach. A person who can see past the frenzy of the moment to what is waiting, over that long horizon of pain. A person who knows how bloody and hard it is to bring new life into this world. And when we get to the moment when we are sure it is physically impossible—there is no way new life is going to come out of a space that small—a person who believes that it is possible, because she’s seen it, he’s seen it, this is not their first delivery. A person who believes that even we in this moment are capable of delivering new life too.

A midwife who fears God. You have to be willing to relinquish the spotlight, if you want that role. You aren’t the one who is delivering. You’re just the one they called, to be a witness, and an encourager, and a professional set of hands at the ready. You will have to watch the one who is labouring, and wait with them, however long it takes. They won’t be at their best. They will not be delighted to be experiencing the miracle of birth. They will hate everyone in the room, including you, for making them do this. You will probably have to weather a lot of snarling and later, screaming, because it hurts, and you are going to have to watch them hurt. Not forever. But long enough to tire you out, bring you to the point of exhaustion. It’s hard to be a witness to a new creation. And a lot to clean up, afterwards.

A midwife who fears God. The verb might be the hardest piece of it, or at least the object of that verb. To fear God, and not Pharaoh, and his new administration. To fear God, and not the dark night of the soul. To fear God, and not the anxiety of all you do not know in this world and in this seminary, and more specifically on this Friday’s Hebrew quiz. To be a midwife who fears God means you get to learn a few subversive practices. Maybe you disobey a direct order and lie to Pharaoh’s face: ‘I didn’t let the babies live; I just didn’t get there in time.’ Maybe you turn stereotypes on their heads, to your own advantage: ‘You’re right: Hebrew women aren’t like Egyptian women; they’re vigorous, and strong, and they and their babies are going to outlive you and yours, that is for sure.’ And maybe, if you’re a midwife who fears God, you see more than the latest atrocity coming out of Pharaoh’s mouth at the press conference. Maybe you see the big picture, which is that this empire will not have the last word. It will not define the new order. It will not poison us with old hate. The only power we answer to is the Creator of the Universe, and the God of Love. The midwives weren’t scared of Pharaoh. They feared God, and because of that, God gave them families, which I take to mean a wider circle of human love and connection and belonging that they could ever have had on their own.

A midwife who fears God. What if that’s what we’re supposed to be, for one another, in these days? What if it’s what we’re supposed to be for this seminary, this country, this world? What if everything that is waiting to be born in you and in me is totally dependent on our willingness to walk with one another, behind the scenes, as a witness and another set of hands?

I think it means we’re in for a long night, or at least a few long semesters. You can’t be a part of a seminary in the American South with a nearly 200-year history this Presbyterian and this White and not find yourself staring into the powers and principalities of racism, and not a day goes by when I don’t discover another vestige of my own complicity and failures. But I believe in this text, that a midwife who fears God rather than Pharaoh can accompany me, and you, too, through whatever we are labouring to bring forth and become. I believe every time a midwife says no to Pharaoh; baby Moses has a chance to survive and grow up. And I believe this is how liberation starts, so we can all leave Egypt, by the mercies of God, holy and acceptable, body and spirit.

This is a big week at Columbia Seminary. Orientation—and then, it begins. The labour of a theological degree. Class by class, book by book, semester by semester, internship by internship. So that something may be born, something you don’t even know yet. A book of Scripture you’ve never opened. A piece of history you’ve never seen. A way of thinking you’ve never known. A set of practices you’ve never tried. And then a community, and a vocation, and a way forward into ministry that may not even be in your realm of imagining, today. It is not the calmest journey you will ever make, and there will probably be a fair bit of yelling, because transition hurts; it is the worst. But the journey is tempered by what we pray is waiting, over that long horizon of labour: new life. New life in Christ. And the people sitting around you whose names you are just learning are going to be the friends who get you through it, and the best part of being here; just ask the returning students. They will be your midwives who fear God, so you can birth a new thing. And you will be the same for them.


I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present yourselves to one another, and your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect…and perfect…and perfect.

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