Do Not Conform
On Friday night, August 11th, a small group of University of Virginia students decided to do something. Seeing hundreds of neo-Nazis and white supremacists marching on their campus, chanting “Jews will not replace us,” “Sieg Hiel,” and yelling racial slurs, these students decided someone needed to stand up to them. Someone needed to send a different message. So a group of about 20 students, all young – between 17 and 22 years old –went out and encircled the statue of Thomas Jefferson in front of the rotunda on campus. And there, they linked arms across gender and races and religions, together holding a sign that read:
“VA Students Act Against White Supremacy.”
Even as they were surrounded by torches of hate, knowing they were outnumbered 50 to 1 by armed men, they stood their ground. These students refused to give in. They refused to give in to the evil and hate that surrounded them. They refused to conform.
That image has stood with me these last two weeks. These students were not famous or powerful. We still don’t even know most of their names. They have diverse majors and backgrounds. Some came to this campus to be doctors. Some came to be journalists. Some came to be teachers. Some came to be engineers. They didn’t pick this fight. They didn’t choose to have a march of hate and racism on their campus. But when it came, they decided to stand up for those who were being attacked. They decided to stand up for love and welcome of all people.
I look at what they did that Friday night, and I think: what power can come when just a handful of ordinary people refuse to conform to evil and stand up for something good. Those young people have encouraged me. They reminded me that all of us have a voice and a power to make a difference in our world.
In our reading from Exodus today, many of those same forces of evil were at work. They are forces of evil that have been around throughout human history:
-fear and hatred against a growing minority group.
The Israelites are hated and oppressed in Egypt not because they have done anything wrong. In fact, their ancestor Joseph saved the people of Egypt from famine. No, they are hated because they are “the other.”
They speak differently. They have unique cultural practices and beliefs. They come from another land. Their skin color is a little bit different. And Pharaoh and the Egyptians are afraid of what they don’t know. They are afraid of that which is different.
And so Pharaoh enslaves the Israelites, attacks them, and beats them. He tries to wipe out an entire group of people, an entire nationality. He tries to get rid of this minority group, to get back to (in his eyes) a more pure Egyptian nation.
There is a reason that slaves in the United States connected so strongly with the story of Exodus. It is because racism and bigotry and oppression were just as alive in Pharaoh’s time as they are in our world today.
In response to this evil and hatred and racism, it took two ordinary everyday women to act for good.
These were not powerful or famous people. Even today, their names are not well known. Who here has even heard of Shiphrah and Puah? They weren’t prophets or kings or generals. They weren’t famous fighters on the battlefield or great orators and writers. Shiphrah and Puah were midwives. But without their action, there would be no Moses. There would be no David. There would be no Solomon. There would be no Ruth or Hannah. There would be no Peter and Paul and John and Mary. There would be no Jesus of Nazareth.
Because these midwives refused to go along with evil and hate. They refused to go along with wiping out an entire people. When Pharaoh commanded that the midwives kill every boy born to a Hebrew, they knew that this was the law of that land. They knew that it was expected of them to conform and do these cruel acts. If they refused, they risked their own lives.
But they also knew that it was wrong. It was evil. They knew this is not God’s plan for the world. So instead of killing the male Hebrew babies, they brought them into life. They cared for them and nursed them. They chose love over hate, light over darkness life over death. They chose God’s ways over the ways of the world.
And when Pharoah came to them and demanded what happened, they used Pharaoh’s own racism and prejudice against him and his evil plan. They told him, ”The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women. They are lively and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” This was ridiculous and untrue. But Pharaoh’s prejudice made him believe it. And it allowed Shiphrah and Puah to keep bringing life into this world.
These two ordinary, forgotten women outsmarted the powerful king of Egypt. They saved an entire people. By refusing to conform, they changed human history.
In our first reading today, Paul tells us,
“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2)
Do not conform. Shiphrah refused to conform. Puah refused to conform. Those students at UVA linking arms, surrounded by hate, they refused to conform. When Jesus came to live among us, he did not conform to his surroundings. He challenged both the legal and religious system. He acted scandalously, welcoming in sinners to his table. He broke laws, healing on the Sabbath and overturning the tables of money changers. He went to serve and love people of other nationalities and ethnicities not his own.
All of us here are called to be Shiphrahs and Puahs today. We are called to be ordinary, everyday heroes, who refuse to conform when faced with evil. You may wonder, “Who am I to do such a thing?” I’m no Moses or David, no prophet or king. Well, who were they? Simply midwives, forgotten by the powers of the world. Simply students holding up a sign against hate.
And if God can use them to save an entire nation, to stand up for love, then God can use any one of us. To be a part of God’s work, you don’t have to part the Red Sea. You don’t have to slay a giant with a slingshot. You don’t have to turn water into wine. All you need to do is stand for goodness. “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed.” Amen.