“The Next Right Thing”

Exodus 1:8 – 2:10
Romans 12:1-8
Kelly Ann Seaman
August 27, 2023

Call the Midwife is a show that my mother and Jaime Cowan have demanded I watch for years. I finally got wise and started a few weeks ago. The show is beautiful, and heartbreaking. It tells the true story of the nuns and nurses of Nonnatus House, who work to deliver the babies of the impoverished East End of London.  Always on call, they swoop down the narrow streets on their bicycles at all hours, armed with their birthing kits. Sometimes, they’re sent to beautifully kept bedrooms, other times to the floor of a barn. Every episode dances between stories of joy and healthy babies, to stories of heartbreak. 

Birth is different for every woman. I have friends who have gone through birth looking like Beyonce, leaving the hospital almost floating on air. I have friends who have had to leave their babies in the NICU for months; praying every day for improvement. And I have friends who have had to go through the unthinkable pain of walking into a birthing room, only to walk out without the baby they’d hoped for and loved for so long. I am sure every person in this room knows or has lived stories of loss and heartbreaking struggle, alongside stories of absolute magic. But no one knows more of these stories than the people who have devoted their lives to being in the birthing room.

Perhaps no job on earth calls people to carry joy and sorrow more closely, and often at the same time. 

To steal a quote from Call the Midwife, “A midwife is in the thick of it, she sees it all… Why aren’t midwives the heroines of society that they should be? Why do they have such a low profile? They ought to be lauded to the skies, by everyone.” And that is why we have the names of Shiphrah and Puah recorded in our Exodus reading today; they are heroines worth remembering.

My friend Jenna is one of these heroes. She is a transport labor and delivery nurse at St. David’s. Every day, she suits up, jumps into a helicopter, and saves moms and babies while flying through the air. She’s also a part of a national hurricane team whose job it is to fly to save babies and their moms during natural disasters. Yes, I am so glad you asked, I will happily deliver Starbucks gift cards directly to her if you want. She walks alongside people in the most terrifying days of their lives. As her friend, I’ve been able to see up close how much is asked of these heroes. I’ve gotten calls from Jenna on her way home as she’s asked, “Distract me, okay? Today was really hard.”

I asked Jenna what she’s learned doing this incredibly stressful job, and she said, “I think I’ve learned that all life is precious and deserves someone to fight for it. Especially those who can’t fight for themselves. There’s a sense of fulfillment and fierce pride that I get when the skills I’ve honed over the years (both physical skills and emotional) can lift a weight off of someone else. It’s a lot to carry, but I’m so proud to do it.”

Perhaps we could add to our Romans verses from today: if your gift is bringing new life into this world, and walking beside families during the unthinkable: be a midwife. 

Siphraph and Puah had gifts like my amazing friend. Their God given gift was bringing life. So, it’s no wonder that there was no choice for them but to defy a Pharaoh asking them to kill instead of birth. It was in direct opposition to the gifts and skills God had blessed them with.

Rabbis and commentators have discussed and disagreed for centuries on Shiphrah and Puah’s significance and identity. Many translators translate Hebrew midwives as the midwives to the Hebrew slaves, suggesting that Shiphrah and Puah were not Hebrew but Egyptian, which would make their defiance even more powerful. One commentary from the Talmud, a collection of commentary taken from the oral tradition, suggests Shiphrah and Puah were actually Moses’ mother and sister. Others propose that they represent the two roles women would play as midwives: one who helps the mother during labor and one who helps the baby after birth. 

There is also some disagreement on what God’s “giving them families” means: some believe the midwives were barren so this shows that God blessed them with children of their own. Others believe this means they were established as a “royal family,” perhaps as priests and leaders in the community. 

Reading all the speculation, commentary, and translation disagreement is really interesting, but what do we actually know about these women? We know their names, and we know their actions. But did you know that Shiphrah and Puah’s story is actually the very first act of civil disobedience recorded in written history. The ripple effect of their defiance led to a baby being placed in a basket, saved from the water by the daughter of the man trying to kill him, and this baby would later lead his people out of slavery.

Do I think that with each baby they saved, they knew the ripple effect their actions would be taking? No. Do I think Shiphrah and Puah weren’t terrified? No. I think that with each baby caught in their arms, the full body truth of each baby’s worth and value directed them to do the next right thing: to hand that baby back into its mother’s waiting arms. If Shiphrah and Puah had copied the behaviors and customs of their world, if they had feared Pharoah more than God, we would have a very different story. Instead, these women let the truth of the next right thing lead them to defy an empire. They were discerning the will of God simply by living into their gifts and doing what they knew in their bones was “good, acceptable, and perfect.” 

I really wish God gave us a map or a blueprint. Life would be so much easier to navigate if we had a God who gave us a post-it note every morning with a bulleted “My Will” for today’s list? 

We don’t have a post-it note, but God has given us tools: His word, the Holy Spirit, the example of Jesus, our church community, prayer, and our very own set of gifts and skills. These are the things we can use to fulfill our role in the body of Christ and seek God’s will in our lives. Perhaps, most simplistically, we just have to do “the next right thing.” 

In Call the Midwife, there’s an absolutely effervescent character named “Chummy”.  She’s a clumsy, 6 foot one midwife, who can barely walk through a room without knocking things over. She tries desperately to learn to ride a bike, but falls over and over again, an act that delights all of the neighborhood children. She is kind and capable, but she has crippling self doubt. On her very first call alone as a midwife, she is faced with a terrifying reality. The baby is breech, coming out feet first. She is all alone, and the room is electric with the very real fear of what could happen: the baby could die. She is so scared, her hands shaking. 

But suddenly she realizes what is at stake, the life of the baby she is sent to bring into the world safely. She steadies herself, takes control of the situation, and step by step, she does the next right thing. She calls in the soon to be big brother of the baby. He is one of the neighborhood kids who had relentlessly made fun of her, and demands he run to a phone and call for the doctor. Realizing she doesn’t have time to wait, she directs the mother to slide to the side of the bed. The scene plays out with a scary, echoing silence as Chummy gathers all of her bravery to do what she has been trained to do. She delivers each foot, then the torso, then the shoulders and arms. The danger of a breech birth is that the head can get stuck in the birthing canal. I’ll save you the details, but know that it’s the most dangerous part. Chummy transforms into this confident and sure version of herself. She coaches the mother calmly.  As she is delivering the head, the doctor and one of the nuns burst through the door ready to steop in, but stand back in awe as the baby is born safely. Chummy bursts into thankful and relieved tears, as the mother says, “Your hands aren’t shaking anymore.” The fear in the room dissipates as the baby’s healthy cries fill the quiet room with joy. The big brother is so thankful, he becomes Chummy’s biggest fan, and after this day, she takes her new confidence and learns to ride her bike beautifully! 

We call today “Rally Day,” a special day where we rally around these precious young people (weirdos) and encourage them into their next year of school. Maybe our hands (and theirs) are shaking a little. After all, there’s a lot of fear right now in and around our school systems. We are afraid of gun violence. We are afraid of drugs laced with fentanyl. We are afraid of this new generation and their crazy ideas. There are bullies, heartbreak, mean teachers, mental health struggles, standardized tests, some people are trying to bring low rise jeans back in style. 

But the truth is, fear is not new. This is the fear that all of us have. We are afraid of the evil in this world having a negative lasting effect on these beautiful babies. We are afraid of all the things that could go wrong. 

It can all feel pretty bleak, but that is why fear is not of God. Fear hides in the corners of our brains and whispers the scariest possibilities imaginable, it makes us lose sight of a deeper truth: that there is another actor at play; the will of God, a God who loves us and works all together for good. And if we have a fear, a respect, a trust of that God, just like the midwives in our story today,  then we can breathe and do the next right thing. We have to because we are called to be the feet and (maybe the shaking hands) of Christ in this world. This is how we worship God, with our lives. 

Our Romans reading for today stopped at verse 8, but I want to leave you the rest of the chapter as I think it gives us some good “Next Right Things” for our post it note. This is from The New Living version, and I invite you to close your eyes and imagine with me how these next right things could be applied to our life this week. Perhaps one phrase will stand out to you this morning: 

9 Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. 10 Love each other with genuine affection,[e] and take delight in honoring each other. 11 Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically.[f] 12 Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying. 13 When God’s people are in need, be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality.

14 Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them. 15 Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with each other. Don’t be too proud to enjoy the company of ordinary people. And don’t think you know it all!

17 Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. 18 Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone.

19 Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. For the Scriptures say,

“I will take revenge;

    I will pay them back,”[g]

    says the Lord.

20 Instead,

“If your enemies are hungry, feed them.

    If they are thirsty, give them something to drink.

In doing this, you will heap

    burning coals of shame on their heads.”[h]

21 Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good.

Evil and fear will always be right there in the corner, on the computer screen, in the classroom, or on the cold marble floor in front of a Pharaoh’s throne. That evil is real, but we serve a God who takes all of our next right things and works them together for good. “Thy will be done”.

About Kelly Ann Seaman