Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 23, 2020
Exodus 2: 1-10 – Common English Bible
A man from Levi’s household married a Levite woman. 2 The woman became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She saw that the baby was healthy and beautiful, so she hid him for three months. 3 When she couldn’t hide him any longer, she took a reed basket and sealed it up with black tar. She put the child in the basket and set the basket among the reeds at the riverbank. 4 The baby’s older sister stood watch nearby to see what would happen to him.
5 Pharaoh’s daughter came down to bathe in the river, while her women servants walked along beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds, and she sent one of her servants to bring it to her. 6 When she opened it, she saw the child. The boy was crying, and she felt sorry for him. She said, “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children.”
7 Then the baby’s sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Would you like me to go and find one of the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?”
8 Pharaoh’s daughter agreed, “Yes, do that.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 9 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I’ll pay you for your work.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. 10 After the child had grown up, she brought him back to Pharaoh’s daughter, who adopted him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I pulled him out[a] of the water.”
Today’s story actually begins a little earlier than the birth of Moses and his rescue from a basket on the Nile. The first line in the lectionary is “A new king came to power in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph.” So, that means we have to go back even earlier than Moses – like 500 years earlier.
Remember the story I told a few weeks ago about those twin brothers named Jacob and Esau? Joseph was Jacob’s son. His favorite son. Much, much younger than his 11 brothers, he was annoying to them. In part, because Jacob made it known that Joseph was his favorite, born of his favorite wife, Rachel.
And you may have heard of the special gift: Joseph’s amazing technicolor dream-coat? To be fair, he really was a twerp and eventually his brothers grew so tired of his prancing and preening, they threw him in a hole. And they kept him there until they sold him as a slave to some folks on their way to Egypt. Then gave his shirt, covered in goat’s blood, to their father so he would think his beloved Joseph had been eaten by a wild animal.
Years later, great story but too long, Joseph ascended to the role of trusted official in the Pharaoh’s government because he interpreted a dream that foresaw a great famine. He convinced the Pharaoh to build vast storage barns to prepare. Back home, that famine hit so hard that many people emigrated to Egypt, including Joseph’s brothers, to avoid starvation.
Again, long story short, Joseph saved his brothers. But more than that, he saved Egypt. Despite being a foreigner, he was a hero. Except after they forgot about him. He was a hero until they began to resent all those families who had moved to Egypt to avoid starvation. 500 years later, there were “too many” of them. This new king who didn’t know Joseph said, “We’ve got to do something because they might turn on us.”
They forgot. It’s not good when a nation loses its corporate memory because when a nation loses its memory, suspicion and prejudice can take over. Frightened or paranoid leaders conveniently turn “others” into a threat to “our” way of life. But isn’t it interesting that, even now, “our way of life” only applies to those trying to protect their privilege and power?
And so, all those outsiders were rounded up and organized into work-gangs. They tried to crush them with slave labor, making it worse and worse. But, as the story goes, the harder they worked them, the more children they produced. No matter how much they oppressed them, nothing worked to contain them, so Pharaoh told the two midwives for the Hebrew people to kill all the boys as they delivered them.
The midwives agreed but wouldn’t do it. When Pharaoh realized they were not carrying out his orders, they lied and said the Hebrew women are so “vigorous,” they have their babies before the midwives can arrive. So, Pharaoh extended the order beyond the midwives. Pharaoh ordered all of his people to participate in infanticide – to drown every infant Hebrew boy in the Nile River.
Why would anyone agree to do that? To victimize someone, you’ve got to turn them into a threat. As one liberation theologian said, that’s only possible if those in power can “skew or even obliterate the corporate memory of the people. Ordinary people do not set out to oppress and exploit, unless someone can frighten them and point to a scapegoat.” It’s a playbook that is thousands and thousands of years old. But then as now, just one person at a time can interrupt the narrative.
As we heard in the story read, the life of Moses was miraculously spared. Great heroes often have stories of miraculous births – in fact, stories of other great leaders include being placed in a basket on the Nile River. But this is not just a story about the birth of Moses. This is the beginning of the liberation narrative, the story of freedom from slavery. The escape. The wilderness. The complaining. Lots of complaining about how life was better back in Egypt. We’re going to follow this story of God and the people for several weeks going forward.
As liberation theologians declare, “The point of this story is to demonstrate how the seeds of freedom for the slaves were sown years before through simple disobedience by women – the midwives Shiphrah and Puah who tricked and defied Pharaoh, by Moses’ mother Jochebed (jo-quay-bed) and sister Miriam who carefully plotted a way for him to be rescued, and then by the daughter of the very Pharaoh who decreed his death. As the text points out, the princess, whose name we don’t know, knew she was saving a Hebrew boy. She made a fool out of her father – whether she intended to or not.
He decreed death out of his fear, and she co-opted life out of her compassion. The courageous actions of Moses later in his life cannot be divorced from these women, whose compassion defeated fear.
It inspires in me once again an appreciation for how small acts of compassion really are acts of resistance in the face of fear, which multiply into greater acts of liberation. Moses was a great leader, but he’s not the reason they escaped. Liberation is not the result of one grand gesture or one great leader but thousands of actions and millions of people that destroy dubious fear with rebellious compassion.
And I think that’s an important reminder in this presidential season. We should not aspire to elect a Moses-like leader who will deliver us and lead us out of our national crisis. That would be great, but ultimately someone else can’t heal us. We need to inspire one another. Because our acts of rebellious compassion multiplied will become the greater acts of liberation that defeat fear and fearmongers. Along with the providence of God, it is we, not someone we elect, who will save our nation.
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