A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer—July 1, 2012
Sometimes life pits us between a rock and a hard place, as they say, and we are forced to decide between two difficult choices involving right and wrong. Such is the predicament that Shiprah and Pual found themselves to be in. These were two women who served as midwives for the Hebrews when they were still down in Egypt. Shiphrah and Puah are nowhere else mentioned in the Bible; so nothing else is known about them. Yet, we remember them by name. Why? I believe it is because they had the courage to make a difficult choice, and they were successful. “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool,” Shiphrah and Puah were ordered by the king of Egypt, “if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, then she shall live” (Exodus 1:16). Now, what a choice! To obey the king of Egypt and commit murder after murder, or defy the king and save the children while putting their own lives in danger. What might we have done? At great risk Shiphrah and Puah disobeyed the king. The reason given is that they “feared God” (1:17). But I want to think there was more to it than that. I want to think they acted from human decency, and from the desire to do what was just and right, and from a heart of compassion. At great risk to their own lives, they refused to participate in the state-authorized killing; in spite of the danger involved, they chose to counter the king’s attempts at genocide. They stood by their convictions.
There is another story that is recounted in the book of Daniel of those who stood by their convictions. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were three young Hebrew men who were carried off from their homeland to Babylon during the Babylonian Exile. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had a golden statue made and set up in a prominent place in his kingdom. In Babylon’s religious culture, statues were frequently worshipped. The king saw it as a way to centralize worship and religion in the kingdom. At appointed times, everyone in the kingdom was to fall down and worship the statue. For conscientious Jews, this was an unthinkable thing to do. It was idolatry, a direct violation of the first two of the Ten Commandments. Yet, those who refused to fall down and pay homage to the golden statue were to be thrown into a blazing furnace of fire. This was not a small oven used for cooking, but probably a huge, industrial furnace used for making bricks or smelting metals.
Some of King Nebuchadnezzar’s leaders observed that the three Hebrew men did not fall down and worship the statue as instructed. So the king, in furious rage, had them brought forth. “Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods and you do not worship the golden statue that I have set up?” the king demanded of the three Hebrew friends. “Now if you are ready . . . to fall down and worship the statue that I have made, well and good. But if you do not worship, you shall immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire, and who is the god that will deliver you out of my hands?”
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego didn’t even need time to consider the alternatives. They answered, “If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.” You may remember how the story goes–Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were bound and thrown into the furnace of blazing fire. They would not compromise their beliefs. They would not adulterate their faith. They would courageously stand by their convictions, regardless of what it cost them, even if it meant death.
Fast forwarding about 2,500 years, there is a story that takes place in Germany during the time when the Nazis were rounding up Jews to take them to concentration camps. They rounded up a bunch of Jewish men and were holding them in a big house before shipping them off to concentration camps. The wives of these men–all who happened to be non-Jewish–gathered outside and surrounded the house 24 hours a day for almost a week and stood there in silent protest. Finally, after seeing the courage and determination of the women, the Nazis let their husbands go.
And then today, on this Independence Sunday, we are reminded of those brave men who made the difficult decision—the choice—to sign the Declaration of Independence. Have you ever stopped to think about the risk they were taking by putting their names to that document? You may have heard about or read the piece that has been circulated titled “The Price They Paid” that tells the fates of those who signed the Declaration of Independence. The piece recounts how some were captured by the British, some were tortured, some had their homes ransacked and burned, some lost their fortunes, some had to go into hiding, and so on. It is quite a provocative and emotional piece. Professor Harlowe from Susquehanna University researched all the names mentioned in “The Price They Paid” and found that, not surprisingly, it has been embellished to some degree, as often is the case in such pieces. But he did find some of it to be factual. A number of those who signed the Declaration of Independence did pay a price, either directly or indirectly. But the main point is, when they signed it, they had no idea how enormous the price they would have to pay for doing so. We respect them for their courage, for the risks they took, and for standing by their convictions.
Well, as I said in the beginning, sometimes all of us are faced with making a difficult choice involving standing up for what we know is right. When faced with such difficult choices in life, we must decide whether or not to be faith-ful—that is, to act in good faith—regardless of the consequences, in order to do what we know in our hearts is just and right. We are called to make the best choices that we can make.
It takes courage to stand up for what we believe in and to go against the crowd. A psychological study was done some years ago involving a group of students. Three straight lines were draw across a chalkboard. One line was clearly just a little bit longer than the other two. A group of students were coached to cooperate in the study by saying that one of the obvious shorter lines was actually the longest. The very last student—the one who was not privy to what was going on—was then asked to choose the longest line. Do you want to guess which line the last student chose? He chose the line the other students had chosen, even though the answer was clearly wrong. Peer pressure made him do it. He did not have the courage to stand by his convictions. And such is a metaphor for the way it often is in the real world when people are faced with choices between opposing the wrong and standing up for what is right. They fail to choose the right because of the peer pressure that pulls them the other way. And sometimes it is easy to doubt our own judgment because someone else says otherwise. When a large group or whole population says one thing is right, it is easy to lose sight of what you believe to be right, when the waters get muddied, as it were. But as Robert G. Ingersoll has rightly said, “It is a blessed thing that in every age someone has had the individuality enough and courage enough to stand by his own convictions.”
There is a wonderful show on television now called “What Would You Do?” Perhaps you have seen it. The show hires actors to do outrageous things like having very disturbing conversations in restaurants, stealing bicycles in city parks, leaving fake babies inside hot cars, staging domestic violence disturbances in public places, and so on. And they watch to see how many people will step in and do the right thing.
When will we be faced with making a difficult choice to step out and stand up for what we know is right? We never know. It could be in a department store, or a restaurant, or in line at the grocery store, or at a city park. Or it could be something much more serious when a lot is at stake involving religious freedom, or the rights of some segment of society, or some other issue with long-term consequences. One thing that the stories I shared have in common is that none of these people who made a difficult decision acted alone. Each had at least one other person standing with them, making the same difficult decision. That is the value of community. The value of religious community.
And there is one more thing: Sometimes we may not be called upon to make a difficult decision of our own, but we may be called to stand with others as they make such decisions, to let them know that they are not alone, they won’t be abandoned, that they are loved regardless of what they decide to do.
Perhaps the next time we are faced with a difficult decision, we can draw inspiration from the stories of those who have gone before us and followed their hearts and consciences and had the courage to stand by their convictions. And we can remember that we are not alone. We have each other. Amen.