Church of the Brethren National Youth Conference
July 22, 2018
My grandmother’s grandmother was named Mary Ann Boggs Stiltner O’Quinn. It’s a big name, and it comes with a big story.
That’s Mary Ann there, third from the left
Actually, Mary Ann Boggs Stiltner O’Quinn was not my “GRANDMOTHER’s “GRANDMOTHER”: she spent her life in Grundy, Virginia and Elkhorn County, Kentucky – climbing mountains and moving across state lines through Appalachia. It’s where I grew up, too, a place full of coal miners and moonshiners, yes, and also full of the loyalty, heart and humor forged by living in the cracks, crevices and hollers of the Blue Ridge. In those mountains, you won’t hear many folks call anybody “GRANDMOTHER.” Mary Ann Boggs Stiltner O’Quinn was really my MAMAW’s MAMAW.
Mary Ann was born on July 26, 1855. She married my great-great grandfather (my Mamaw’s Papaw), Matthew Stiltner, and had SEVEN children. When Matthew died in 1897, Mary Ann was left a widow with seven children, a little bit of land and no money. What do you do if you’re all alone and have seven kids to feed?
In the late 19th century, in the hills and hollers of Eastern Kentucky, a widow didn’t have many options. One characteristic of Appalachian culture that I inherited is a fierce loyalty to family and neighbor: when tragedy strikes, you take care of your people. The community bands together. This is a great attitude, in some cases – it keeps people together, knits support systems and networks of care, and assures people that they are loved and surrounded. I wish more communities knew how to do this the way my home community does.
But this fierce loyalty also has its downfall: sometimes, it means that folks are unlikely or unwilling to look outside their immediate community for opportunity or to extend their care to people who are not like them. I say this lovingly, because I am describing myself. I imagine that Mary Ann’s friends and family opened their homes to her, made space for her. I imagine that they were urging her to find another suitable man to marry, there in Elkhorn County, and quick – because she would have needed safety and security and they wanted to surround her, hold her close, and enfold her in the community.
But Mary Ann did not choose any of those things. She did not duck her head and allow her family or community to keep her safe. She did not seek refuge with her own people. Instead, she opened her eyes and her heart to a larger understanding of the world. What she decided to do became the stuff of legend: Mary Ann Boggs Stiltner sold what land she had for a horse and a shotgun, parceled her 7 children out to friends and family members, and became a midwife, riding through county after county, over the mountains of Virginia and Kentucky to deliver babies. She would mount her horse, shoulder the shotgun for protection from mountain predators, and leave her home and her people to ride over a ridge or two in order to safely usher baby after baby – from families entirely unknown to her – into new life.
Our scripture this morning is about midwives, too. The Israelites have made their way into Egypt – a small band of people from the country who have ended up in the city, under the rule of a Pharaoh. At first, the Israelites had an in with the people in power – Joseph had gotten in good with the ruling class and made sure that his people were safe and taken care of. But we hear in the beginning of the book of Exodus that a new king came to power who didn’t know Joseph – meaning that he didn’t acknowledge the Israelites as people who belonged in his kingdom – and he started to get nervous about them.
“There are so MANY Hebrews,” the new king complained. “What if they start rising up against us? They’re not from here, and I think they’re dangerous. We need to limit them. We need to keep our own people safe, first, and not waste resources on people who aren’t from here, the ones who don’t belong here.” I can hear, if I listen to this new king’s words closely, echoes of my own white, Appalachian, American bringing up: take care of your people, the ones to whom you belong, first. Loyalty is important.
But the new king didn’t stop there. No, the new king outlined a plan to get rid of the Hebrews all together: he would make all the Hebrews do the worst jobs available in his kingdom, the hardest, most difficult, manual labor jobs, the ones no one else wanted. Then, surely they would all die off and stop having more kids. The king had a LOT of riches – food and treasures and unbelievable abundance. He decided that instead of sharing it with the Hebrews, he would force the Hebrews to build storage facilities: that way, they’d have to see all the resources but have zero access to them. Surely that would convince them to leave.
But the hard work didn’t stop the Hebrews from multiplying, and it didn’t drive them away. They stayed in Egypt, and they kept having hearty, healthy children. Their numbers increased even more. The king was terrified. He was frustrated that his plan wasn’t working, so he implemented phase two of the campaign against the Hebrews: The king began talking very badly about the them, calling them evil, criminal, godforsaken. He turned the whole country against them, and the entire Egyptian people started to see the Hebrews as less-than-human, looking at them with disgust and dread, calling them names and telling them to go back tow here they came from.
Eventually, because they came to believe that the Hebrews were of less value than Egyptians, that they were a plague on their country, that they were dirty and criminal, the Egyptians enslaved the entire Hebrew nation. They forced them to do the hot, dirty, dangerous work of making bricks, tilling the fields and all kinds of other backbreaking and cruel work, with no pay, no safety, none of the country’s riches, and no rights to citizenship.
And still, the Hebrews multiplied.
The king could not contain himself. He was obsessed with ridding his country of these outsiders, these slaves who didn’t belong, these dangerous immigrants who were going to take over his nation if nothing was done. But making them do the worst jobs wasn’t working, and even turning an entire people into slaves wasn’t working. So the king sent word to the midwives, Shiprah and Puah:
“When you are helping Hebrew women give birth, and you see that it’s a boy baby being born, kill him. You can let the girls live, but kill every baby Hebrew boy.”
Shiprah and Puah had spent their entire lives helping women give birth – they were dedicated to life, in every way. They knew, because they’d spent so many years seeing it up close and personal, how miraculous and holy birth was, and how precious and beloved each and every child was. They’d committed themselves to bringing LIFE and they knew – deep in their bones – that there was absolutely no way that they could obey the king’s command. There was no way that they could participate in killing.
The midwives, the text tells us, KNEW GOD. That doesn’t just mean that they’d heard of the guy or that they would acknowledge God in worship; to KNOW GOD means that these midwives had a relationship with God, participated in God’s holy work on earth, respected the God who created them and who they knew created every single mother and baby that they helped enter the world. The midwives KNEW God. And because they knew God, they KNEW that the King was wrong.
And the text tells us: “The two midwives KNEW God, so they did not obey the King’s order. Instead, they let the baby boys live.”
The king was furious, and called Shiprah and Puah into his chambers. “Why are you doing this?!” he fumed. The midwives turned to the king and said: “Hebrew women aren’t like Egyptian women. They’re much stronger, and so they give birth really fast. By the time we get there, the babies are already born and we don’t even have a chance to kill them.”
Shiprah and Puah knew God, and they knew that the king was wrong. The midwives chose to follow God instead of following the king. And the midwives not only saved scores of baby boys; their work saved an entire people. These midwives became the first deliverers in a great big, grand narrative of deliverance.
One of the most fascinating parts of the story of Shiprah and Puah is how little we actually know about these women. We don’t know, for instance, whether or not they were lying to the King when they told him that Hebrew women gave birth too fast for them to kill the boy babies. Maybe that was true, maybe it was a fib. Maybe – and this is what I like to think – the midwives simply dallied a little while when they got the call: “Hello, yes, my wife is going into labor, please come quick! What’s that? Oh, yes, we’re Hebrews. Just get here soon!” And, hearing that the woman was a Hebrew, the midwives would sit down, have another cup of tea, and eventually mosey on over to the house, where a healthy baby boy was already birthed, cleaned, and squalling.
But another fascinating thing about this story is that although Shiprah and Puah clearly worked as midwives among the Hebrew people, we don’t actually know if they themselves were Hebrews. The way it’s written in the text could mean that Shiprah and Puah were “Hebrew midwives,” part of the slave class, but it could also mean that Shiprah and Puah were midwives who worked among the Hebrews – Egyptians whose work took them through different communities, helping both slave and free women deliver their infants.
I can’t stop thinking about this. Of course, if Shiprah and Puah were Hebrews, they’d know exactly how awful life had been for the Israelites in Egypt. They would have experienced the backbreaking work, the horrors of slavery, the insults and hatred from every Egyptian they encountered. They would have known the accumulated pain of microaggressions, the generational trauma of oppression, the economic tragedy of never being allowed to earn or to own. If Shiprah and Puah were Hebrew, then they would have grown up and been formed by a people who trusted God over Empire. They would have known the stories of their ancestors who chose God even when it was risky. They would have known that following God was always – ALWAYS – more important than following the King.
But if Shiprah and Puah were EGYPTIAN – if they were part of the empire, if they had grown up in privilege, taught by their parents and their government to look down on the Hebrews, formed in a culture that treated Hebrews as less-than-human, doing it without even thinking about it – well, that’s a totally different story. Shiprah and Puah would have had to come to KNOW GOD without the benefit of their own communities teaching them. They would have had to have experienced a powerful kind of transformation. They would have had to have learned, somehow, that their King was awful, that what he was doing was contrary to everything God imagined, that they, themselves, were implicated in the sinful behavior of their own nation.
If Shiprah and Puah were Egyptian, learning to KNOW GOD and to obey God instead of the King would have been hard. It would have meant that they had not only encountered the living God of Israel and been transformed, but that this transformation led them to care deeply about people who were not their own.
Shiprah and Puah refused the King’s orders because they knew God, and they knew that God loved every single baby, every single person – whether they were Egyptian or Hebrew. If Shiprah and Puah were Egyptian, what they did was a testament to a God who calls us beyond the borders and boundaries of Empire, beyond the false dichotomies and fake differences that we humans erect to keep ourselves safe and others out.
The story of Shiprah and Puah is powerful for me, in part because of my own formation as a white American woman from Appalachia. All three of those things – being white, being American, and being from Appalachia – have the capacity to limit my understanding of the world as belonging only to people who are like me. And, to be honest, all three of those things HAVE limited my understanding of who belongs, who is worthy, and who I am responsible to and for.
For me, learning to KNOW GOD and trust God instead of the Kings of this world is requiring a powerful transformation. Because of who I am and how I was formed, I assumed for a long, long time that I was only responsible to and for a specific set of people. I didn’t know how my life was or could be intimately connected to people who were not like me. I’m still learning this, still being led into this salvation through the power of the Holy Spirit, but I want to share with you one particular moment in this process of becoming redeemed:
A couple of years ago, I went to hear Rev. William Barber speak. You might have heard of Rev. Barber lately, because he’s leading what’s called the Poor People’s Campaign, a national call for moral revival. When I heard him speak, though, Rev. Barber was the head of the North Carolina NAACP – that’s the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. I knew that Barber was a powerful preacher and a force for justice in North Carolina, but I had also felt stuck on the outside of his movement, as a white person newly arrived in the state. I’m not a part of the black church tradition that formed Rev. Barber, I’m not really the target demographic for the NAACP, and even though I was attracted and intrigued by the ways he was witnessing across the nation, I still felt like an onlooker, an outsider, a hanger-on.
But I went to hear Rev. Barber speak, and he told this story: he talked of being invited, several years ago, to preach out in Western North Carolina. You might have read about Rev. Barber being threatened and arrested in various contexts – notably kicked off an American Airlines flight or arrested in front of state capitals for his advocacy on behalf of the poor. But this story that he told was about traveling into a tucked-away mountain county in western North Carolina where he knew the Ku Klux Klan to be active, and where he – a black man – was quite literally scared for his life. His church sent extra people with him, and the group that invited him took extra security measures.
Western North Carolina is Appalachia. It is mountain country, full of the same kinds of hills and hollers that I grew up in. It is also filled with the same kind of fierce loyalty that is able to take care of its own with an unparalleled beauty but sometimes struggles to identify with outsiders, the ones who aren’t like us or don’t belong.
When Rev. Barber got up to speak out in western NC, he said that the crowd was mostly white, just as he expected. He was glad, he said, that he had brought extra people and that the host group had posted security outside the venue. The crowd was also filled with mostly women – white, mountain, Appalachian women. Rev. Barber preached his standard message about justice and fusion coalitions, connecting people across lines of race and politics to advocate a moral agenda on those in power.
After he spoke, he said, this group of what he called ‘old white mountain ladies’ got so excited about what he’d said, so caught up in the message of different kinds of people working together, so on fire with the biblical principles of caring for the poor, that they begged Rev. Barber to start their own chapter of the NAACP right there in the mountains of Western North Carolina – made up of members who would be mostly old white mountain ladies.
Rev. Barber’s message of cooperation and justice, mercy for the least of these and accountability for the powerful was so convicting – so full of the the love of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ – that these white mountain ladies wanted to start their own chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
That story convicted me, not because I want to join the NAACP, exactly, but because I am from a long line of old white mountain women. I thought, immediately, of Mary Ann Boggs Stiltner O’Quinn, who was called to expand her heart from her own place and her own people in order to love and be of service to ALL of God’s children. Rev. Barber laughed a hearty laugh when he told this story, but when I heard it, some door opened in my heart. Maybe, I thought, just maybe there is a place for me in this movement, too. Maybe I – a white lady from Appalachia, inheritor of both the fierce loyalty that binds people together and white supremacy that tears us apart – can work together with all kinds of different people to make a new world possible, too.
Here’s what I want to say to you:
Our God – the God of the Hebrews, the God of the midwives, the God of Mary Ann Boggs Stiltner O’Quinn, the God of Rev. William Barber, the God of me and the God of you…
our God does not stand for smallness.
Our God does not endorse petty human boundaries, hateful racism, sinful white supremacy. Our God is not satisfied when we barricade ourselves in places with people who look like us, talk like us, and experience the world like we do.
Our God is calling us, inviting us, convicting us, compelling us, insisting that we come to KNOW him, and that in knowing him, we will come to act in solidarity with the poor, the oppressed, the enslaved, the exiled.
Shiprah and Puah didn’t disobey the King just because they could. They disobeyed the King because in coming to know the God of the Universe, they realized that they had been called and commissioned and equipped to follow her, in every relationship and every circumstance.
Their hearts had been filled with a love so extravagant that it could not be contained by racial or ethnic divisions, political or social expectations, cultural or religious formation. Their hearts had been filled with a love so enormous that they couldn’t imagine doing anything other than what they did.
The midwives KNEW GOD, and so they disobeyed the King.
May each of us be granted the kind of relationship with the Creator God that compels us to follow in the way of love and mercy even at great risk, even across great divides. May it be so. Amen.