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First Presbyterian Church

Dr. Stuart R. Gordon

August 24, 2014

 Never Forgotten

Exodus 1-2; Philippians 4

 But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.

            Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed isThe story of the Village of Le Chambon (France) and How Goodness Happened There.” It was written by Philip Hallie, who for years had studied the cruelties of the Holocaust. He recounts in the prelude to this book that after years of such studies, “I had dug myself into Hell, and I had forgotten redemption, had forgotten the possibility of escape.”1

            He goes on,

            On this particular day, I was reading in an anthology of documents from the Holocaust, and I came across a short article about a little village in the mountains of southern France. As usual, I was reading the pages with an effort at objectivity; I was trying to sort out the forms and elements of cruelty and of resistance to it in much the same way a veterinarian might sort out ill from healthy cattle. After all, I was doing this work not to torture myself but to understand the indignity and the dignity of man.

            About halfway down the third page of the account of this village, I was annoyed by a strange sensation on my cheeks. The story was so simple and so factual that I had found it easy to concentrate upon it, not upon my own feelings. And so, still following the story, and thinking about how neatly some of it fit into the old patterns of persecution, I reached up to my cheek to wipe away a bit of dust, and I felt tears upon my fingertips. Not one or two drops; my whole cheek was wet….

            [T]hat night when I lay on my back in bed with my eyes closed, I saw more clearly than ever the images that had made me weep. I saw the two clumsy khaki-colored buses of the Vichy French police pull into the village square. I saw the police captain facing the pastor of the village and warning him that if he did not give up the names of the Jews they had been sheltering in the village, he and his fellow pastor, as well as the families who had been caring for the Jews, would be arrested. I saw the pastor refuse to give up these people who had been strangers in his village, even at the risk of his own destruction.2

 

            “Religious faith,” said Senator Sam Ervin, “is not a storm cellar to which men and women can flee for refuge from the storms of life. It is, instead, an inner spiritual strength that enables them to face these storms of life with hope and serenity.”

            I want to invite you this morning to watch and wonder at some examples of faith, some real-life situations in which people did remarkably, undeniably good things.

            The villagers of Le Chambon. The Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah. The Apostle Paul. These are people for us to remember, people whose faith can bring tears to your eyes because it is so undeniably good. It is remarkably good in that the circumstances don’t seem to define them. What seems to define them is an inner spiritual strength that enables them to face storms.

            It would probably help to recall what had gone on with the Hebrew people before Shiphrah and Puah were called to such faith. Remember that it was Joseph, the son of Jacob’s old age, who had first ended up in Egypt. His brothers hated him and sold him into slavery, which resulted in his enduring trials but ultimately rising to great power, as Pharaoh’s right-hand man. And Joseph’s wisdom resulted in Egypt being well-prepared for famine – maybe you remember the dream of the seven fat cows followed by the seven skinny cows – and in Joseph’s own people immigrating to Egypt in search of food.

            But the years passed and Joseph’s generation passed on, and a new king came to power in Egypt, who did not know what Joseph had done for the nation. And all the new king knew was that these foreigners were growing numerous, and it scared him. So the people who once had been favored now were feared, and the official policy toward them became, shall we say, less than welcoming. Things changed. Maybe that’s too simplistic. Maybe it would be better to say more than that, but we can say at least that. Things changed. Those who were friendly became antagonistic. Those who were grateful became threatening. The Hebrew people were no longer welcome.

            This brings us to the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah. Now, I doubt that if I had quizzed you on their names before the scripture reading, you could have recited them. But I will ask you to try to remember them after today. It is not accidental that the Bible tells us their names; the author of Exodus wants us to know them and remember them. You see, as long as this event is recalled, Shiphrah and Puah are remembered, and the blessing pronounced upon them by God is perpetuated. It is an astounding blessing, really, because God essentially declares a special dispensation for these two women. God rewards their faithfulness by giving them families, which does not mean children. It means God treated them like the twelve tribes, the sons of Jacob. They have names, inheritances. The blessing of God and the testimony of Exodus means that Shiphrah and Puah are never forgotten.

            What did they do? “The midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.” That sounds like inner spiritual strength, doesn’t it? How else do you explain two poor, powerless women refusing to obey the king? And they don’t openly rebel, mind you. They don’t talk smack to the Pharaoh. They just quietly go their way and do their work. And when the mighty king calls them on the carpet when their disobedience is known, they pull the wool over his eyes better than the Roadrunner ever got to Wile E. Coyote. Sometimes faith requires us to be shrewd. Jesus said something about that once, when he was talking about a wise steward who lost his job and needed to think fast. Sometimes faith requires us to be shrewd, which is exactly what Shiphrah and Puah were. It was no time for grand speeches to the Pharaoh about his injustice. It was no time to speak truth to power. It was no time to openly defy him. Faith in that moment called for deception! “Oh, Pharaoh, these Hebrew women give birth like they’re animals or something! They just plop those babies out lickety-split. What are you going to do?” And the Pharaoh, because he already perceived these Hebrews as less than human, had no trouble swallowing that story.

            You know, we learn faith under different circumstances, no matter how long we live. The weather is always changing. The demands are always changing. What kind of faith would it be if things were always easy? If it were always seven years of bounty followed by seven years of bounty? If everyone treated you just right? If no one ever bothered you or mistreated you or took advantage of you? If you never had reason to look toward heaven and ask God just what is going on? Life has storms, and faith isn’t a storm cellar. It’s inner strength.

            The whole nation of the Israelities would be taught this after Moses led them out of Egypt, passing through the waters of the Red Sea. Not over them; through them. And they wandered in the wilderness for forty years, learning to trust God for water from a rock and manna on the ground. We learn faith in all seasons and all circumstances. We learn that it is not circumstances that define the goodness of God. It is the goodness of God that defines the circumstances.

            Abraham Heschel points out that God made his presence known to the Israelites in two primary ways, there in the wilderness: the tabernacle and the Sabbath day. With the tabernacle that led them through the wilderness, God made the space around them holy. And with the Sabbath day each week, God made the time in which they lived holy. No matter what the season of the year, no matter where on the map they were, space and time were holy because God made his presence known to them in tabernacle and Sabbath.

            The goodness of God defines the circumstances.

            I think this is what Paul meant when he wrote to the Philippians, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.”

            One of the dangers of never being in need, it seems to me, is that we begin to identify God with having plenty, being well-fed, never being in need. We run the risk, it seems, of defining God by our circumstances, instead of the other way around. If things aren’t going well, then God must be failing. If our prayers weren’t answered as we asked them, God must not have been listening. If we didn’t get the job we desperately wanted, God must not have been paying attention. If we were losers instead of winners, God was nowhere to be found.

            This brings us to Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Be careful with that one! You can misread it.

            I can’t help but remember the spring of 2008, and the giddiest three weeks of my life, because my little alma mater made a run in the NCAA basketball tournament that had the whole nation buzzing. And the star player of that team had written on his shoes the first words of this verse: “I can do all things….” And he meant them sincerely and I am sure that he knows that they mean more than knocking down three’s. But you and I might think that “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” means that we can conquer any challenge, climb any mountain, win any game through Christ. But what Paul means when he says it is, “I can go hungry. That’s okay.” “I can get beaten by prison guards. I’m fine with that.” “I don’t need for life to go my way in order to see the blessing of God. I just want to testify to God’s goodness in all circumstances. I want to amaze people with a faith that isn’t defined by my circumstances.”

            Paul knows that he is never forgotten. He knows that the Lord is always near. Over 130 times Paul says something about being “in Christ.” And scholars will ponder this phrase until Jesus comes back, trying to wrap their brains around it. John Calvin talked about the “mystical union” that a believer has with Christ. He couldn’t explain it; he just testified. He just knew that the Lord makes himself present and known, in every circumstance. And every person who has ever discovered this, been encountered by this mystery, makes the same testimony. You just find yourself talking like Paul: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings.” It’s not about the circumstances; it’s about God himself. And you want your life to testify to that fact. Win or lose, rise or fall, great or small. Let my life be that testimony. And that, fellow Christians, is strength. That is peace and hope in all circumstances.

            No matter what you might face in life, you can do it in Christ. You know the freedom of the children of God. Circumstance doesn’t define you; God defines the circumstances. And absolutely beautiful, remarkably beautiful things happen.

            Philip Hallie, who wrote about Le Chambon, shares this powerful memory:

            One evening I was speaking to a group of women in the assembly room of a large hotel in Minneapolis. The women were all leading fund raisers for the United Jewish Appeal. They were a formidable audience, with their intense eyes and their energetic personalities. I was talking to them about the killing of more than a million children by the Nazis, and about the village of Le Chambon as the safest place for children on the continent of Europe during the war years.

            When my lecture was over, I asked for questions or comments. A woman in the back of the room stood up and asked me if the village of Le Chambon was in the Department of Haute-Loire in south-central France where the great Loire River has its origin. Her accent marked her as French, and so did her knowledge of the fact that there is more than one village in France called Le Chambon. I told her that indeed the Le Chambon I was talking about is in the Haute-Loire.

            She was a powerful woman wearing a sheath dress that made her body look like a slender cannon, taut, full of explosive power. But for a moment the cannon seemed to crumple. She stood there silent for what seemed to be a long time and then she said, “Well, you have been speaking about the village that saved the lives of all three of my children.”

            There was absolute silence. She drew herself erect in that sheath dress, and she said in formal tones, “I want to thank you for writing that book. Now that the story is in print my American friends who read your book will understand those days better than they have. You see, Americans live on an island, and though your people fought and died in the war, you see the Second World War from a distance, from a distance…”

            There was another silence as she stood there. She had something more to say, but apparently she was trying to decide whether to say it. Then she asked if she might say one more thing. Nobody had the breath or the authority to say a word; she was in total command.

            She came to the front of the room, turned to face the audience, and said, “The Holocaust was storm, lightning, thunder, wind, rain, yes. And Le Chambon was the rainbow.”

            A few people in the room gasped, while she and I looked at each other, and I said, “The rainbow,” and she nodded slowly.

            We understood each other. We understood that the rainbow is the sign God put up in heaven after the great Flood. The sign meant: “…never again shall all flesh be cut off.” In His explanation of the rainbow, God repeated the phrase “never again,” and ever since the Holocaust, Jews have been repeating that phrase.3

            The courage of the villagers. The freedom of the midwives. The contentment of the Apostle. The beauty of their faith, their inner spiritual strength. These, fellow Christians, are the clear signs that God’s people are never forgotten. Regardless of circumstance, never forgotten. Through storm, lightning, thunder: never forgotten. Knowing Christ in his power and his weakness. Making Christ known always.

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  1. Philip P. Hallie, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There (Harper and Row, 1979).
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid
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