The Butterfly Effect

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

What if I were to tell you…

…that what you do this week could change the world?

Would you believe me? Imagine it so? Smile politely but secretly scoff?

Let’s broaden the question. What if we were to tell our people this Sunday — from the pulpit — that what they do this week will change the world? Would they believe us or doubt? Stand taller with hope or soon think of something else? We’ll never know, of course, unless we try.

Two women once made a decision, took a chance, and changed the world. It was simultaneously a small gesture and heroic act. They disobeyed. And because of their act of disobedience God was able to rescue Israel from oppression. Their names are Shiphrah and Puah, and while you may know them, I’m betting almost no one in your congregation does. Which is a shame, because they have something to teach us all.

The beginning of Exodus starts on a chilling note. A ruler, wishing to solidify his political base, identifies a common enemy, a scapegoat to blame for whatever current problems plague society. We’ve seen this movie before. In the thirties, especially though not exclusively in Germany, it was the Jews. More recently it’s been, by turns, the illegal immigrants, the welfare moms, the gays, the “undeserving” poor, and the Muslims. One of the chief manifestations of sin is our penchant for defining ourselves over and against others and in the process denying others their essential humanity, their status as beloved children of God.

This time around, it’s the ancient Israelites. They get fingered by a Pharaoh who has conveniently forgotten that for generations the Israelites he names as possible terrorists had been considered allies and honored guests. And so he first enslaves them and then turns to even darker means, telling the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, to kill all the Hebrew baby boys that are delivered. (Ironically, it is the girls who are apparently of no account to Pharaoh that he should fear, as first these two women, and then three more — Moses’ Hebrew mother and sister and Pharaoh’s Egyptian daughter — who are his undoing.) But they refuse. They do not kill the boys. They lie to Pharaoh, telling them that the Hebrew women give birth too quickly, delivering the babies before the midwives arrive on the scene.

It’s a courageous act of civil disobedience that changes history, for one of the boys that is spared will be called Moses and he will lead the Israelites out of Egyptian captivity. He will deliver God’s law to the Israelites and bring them to the promised land. And it all starts here, with two women willing to say “no” to an act of injustice. I doubt very much they thought they were changing the world. But they were, just by being faithful, by following the dictates of their hearts, by heeding the call of conscience.

Andy Andrews wrote a little book called The Butterfly Effect in which he catalogues the extraordinary impact of simple and courageous efforts. Except when you go back, you can never really tell which efforts made the biggest difference. So, for instance, should Norman Borlaug, who developed high yield, disease resistant corn and wheat be credited with saving two billion lives from famine, or should Henry Wallace, the one-term U.S. Vice-President, who created an office in New Mexico to develop hybrid seed for arid climates and hired Borlaug to run it. Or should we credit George Washington Carver, who took a young Henry Wallace for long walks and instilled in him his love of plants. Or should it be Moses and Susan Carver, who adopted the orphaned George as their son. Or should it be… Well, you get the idea. Andrews points out how inter-connected our actions are, creating an unforeseen butterfly effect that can ripple across time and space to affect the lives of millions.

Who knows? Maybe one of your hearers is a school teacher who will give encouragement to a student who will see something in herself that she hadn’t before and in turn befriend another student who was on the verge of giving up on life…. Or maybe a young person who hears your sermon will stand up to the neighborhood bully this week and not only help the kids being bullied but also the bully, who never had anyone care enough to stand up to him before, and in turn he’ll go on to be a police officer who protects the vulnerable…. Or maybe an elder in your congregation will be moved to volunteer to read to kids at the local library and one of those kids will discover a passion for language and will grow up to be the poet laureate…. Or maybe something you say will shape the career choice of someone who hadn’t been to church in ages but happened to be in church today and who will go on to discover…. Or maybe….

The things we do this week — our actions, decision, choices — will, in fact, ripple out with consequences foreseen and unforeseen, for good or for ill, for the health or damage of the world. That question isn’t whether, but what…what will we do this week to make a difference in the world. Some of these actions may be big, bold, and courageous. Others may be small, hardly noticeable. And yet they all have the potential to ripple out, affecting countless lives. In today’s reading it’s Shiphrah and Puah, quietly standing up to a bully and tyrant. Who knows whom it will be today, this week, this year. The Apostle Paul, in the second reading, says that we all are members of the body of Christ, each with different gifts, yet all one in faith and with the same potential for God to use us to change the world.

So what would you do if I told you that what you do this week could change the world? My hope, Working Preacher, is that you will preach a sermon telling your people the same, and that because of that small and valiant gesture the world will change for the better.

Yours in Christ,