No other Old Testament character is as universally revered and respected as Moses.
Four of the world’s great religions – Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Bahai – all proclaim Moses a vital prophet of God.
And with good reason!
A one-time prince of Egypt who frees his people from Pharaoh’s bondage of slavery and leads them into God’s promised land, Moses goes on to become the lawgiver who meets God face-to-face on Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments.
But wait, there’s more: Moses also gets credit for writing the first five books of the Old Testament, and he’s the most-often-cited prophet of the New Testament.
That’s quite the impressive resume!
It easy to forget, though, that Moses would have accomplished none of that divine work if a bloody plan hatched in the evil mind of Pharaoh had succeeded. Moses is born in the midst of an infant genocide that the tyrannical Pharaoh orders over fears of the Hebrew people becoming too powerful.
That’s where we enter the Old Testament story this morning – a place and time in which life is ending not long after it begins. But Moses’s mother, Yowkebed, hatches a scheme of her own to snatch the life of her baby boy from the maniacal clutches of Pharaoh.
Though unmentioned in this story, the Holy Spirit undoubtedly is at work throughout these tragic, heart-breaking events – not as the imminent and immediate cause of death but as the always and everywhere giver of life.
Not only is the Spirit working upon the heart and mind of Yowkebed but also upon the soul and spirit of Pharaoh’s daughter, whose compassion for Moses ends up saving the day.
May that same Holy Spirit – still as hard at work now as she was back in the day – touch your heart and mind, stir your soul and spirit, as you listen for the word of the Lord in the book of Exodus. I’m reading to you starting with the last verse of chapter 1 and continuing into chapter 2.
In these ancient words, listen for the assurance that the Lord always finds a way to accomplish his always-good, life-giving purposes, even in the face of human opposition and wicked intent.
Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”
Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son. And when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. When she could hide him no longer, she got a papyrus basket for him and plastered it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.
The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him, “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said.
Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?”
“Yes,” said Pharaoh’s daughter.”
So the girl went and called the child’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it.
When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.” (Exodus 1:22-2:10)
How desperately dire must circumstances be when voluntary separation turns into a better option than maternal intimacy?
Indeed, it’s a miserably sad, woefully depressing, trail-of-tears kind of tragedy when a new mother chooses to let go of her precious child.
No thanks to Pharaoh, Yowkebed’s hopes for raising her young son herself, along with her dreams of watching him grow and flourish, unravel into a tangled heap of tattered threads. Under threat of mass extinction by drowning, Yowkebed rolls the dice of gut-wrenching sacrifice on a long-shot gamble that her baby boy will live to see another day.
If you’re a parent – or maybe even a grandparent, then you have some sense of what Moses’s mother is going through – some inkling of empathy for what it feels like when the ambitions and aspirations you cherish for your kids or grandkids suddenly disappear.
If you’re among the children, teen-agers and young adults whose plans, expectations and opportunities have come unglued, then you, too, are experiencing something of what Yowkebed is experiencing.
No thanks to coronavirus, parents and children these days are feeling the painful disappointment of heartbreaking loss.
In the spring, much-anticipated proms and graduations were substantially altered or canceled outright.
Then came summer, and plans for swim lessons, Scout camps, and warm-weather jobs flew off the rails.
This fall, hopes and dreams for a normal return to school or typical start to college life – and many of the campus traditions and activities that everyone eagerly awaits – vanished into thin, virus-laden air.
And the other rocks and ruts in the road ahead – political upheaval, social unrest, economic uncertainty – likely will continue to rattle our plans, crush our hopes, and break our dreams.
It’s our “new normal,” and frankly, it stinks!
Even so, if you look and listen carefully, this morning’s lesson offers a whiff of sweet assurance that all is not lost forever.
Another kind of unraveling is going on here, too – an undoing of evil that’s working unto good.
And the one who’s pulling the strings is none other than Pharaoh’s daughter, who unravels her own father’s extermination plans by adopting baby Moses.
That’s quite the impressive feat, because Pharaoh’s daughter is stepping up to the plate for someone who is not a member of her own family clan or social class. Even more astounding, Pharaoh’s daughter goes to bat for a God who is not her own. Pharaoh’s daughter in effect is working with God to offer safe harbor to an innocent child with whom she has no absolutely connection.
In making that risky move, Pharaoh’s daughter is ensuring that God’s plans of justice and freedom for an oppressed and enslaved people keeping moving forward. Pharaoh’s daughter leverages her privilege to become an unlikely ally of Yowkebed and Moses – AND an unlikely ally of God!
Author Anne Bishop offers an intriguing definition of unlikely alliances that speaks to what Pharaoh’s daughter did then and to what I believe God would have each of us do now in response the life-threatening social and political challenges we are facing. Ms. Bishop writes:
“Allies are people who recognize the unearned privilege they receive from society’s patterns of injustice and take responsibility for changing these patterns. Allies include men who work to end sexism, white people who work to end racism, heterosexual people who work to end heterosexism, able-bodied people who work to end ableism, and so on.”
In other words, unlikely allies are people who examine and question the benefits and advantages they unknowingly enjoy simply by external appearance or social membership. Unlikely allies then take the necessary next steps to level the playing field.
To become one, an unlikely ally likely has to work through the discomfort of admitting to being wrong – or, at least, not being entirely right.
But, in the larger picture of holy alliances, being an unlikely ally isn’t so much about being right as it is about being unwilling to let wrongs continue running their roughshod course unchallenged and unchecked.
Being an unlikely ally is far more demanding than simply being “nice.”
Being “nice” means being someone who doesn’t want to make others feel bad. A “nice” person doesn’t want injustice to persist and likes to see the righting of wrongs. But a “nice” person usually taps out when confronted with the existence of injustice in their own unconscious beliefs and behaviors.
“Nice” people don’t want others to feel bad, but if someone has to feel bad, they’d just as soon prefer that it not be them.
I struggle with my own ingrained habits of “niceness.”
I prefer that people be kind, agreeable and amenable, able to work things out, and I sometimes find myself wanting to push aside or rush through tense moments to get back to the peaceful, easy feelings of “nice.”
But I also have to be brutally honest with myself and recognize that my inclination toward niceness in no way negates the realities of racism, sexism, or any other -ism.
And if I willfully choose to ignore my own privilege, because my personal relationships or beliefs contradict the ugliness of one of those -isms, then I cannot be an ally to anyone, and I render myself an ineffective agent of God.
Here are a few examples of moments when I struggle to be an ally – moments when I should speak out in love but usually fall back on being “nice” and remaining silent.
Someone – usually a white person – asks, “Why are those (insert name of racial or ethnic group here) so angry? I didn’t do anything to them.”
But an unlikely ally would speak out to suggest that maybe we in the majority are all part and parcel of a society that has done and continues doing something to them.
Here’s another: “My (friend/neighbor/co-worker/first cousin twice removed on my mother’s side) is (African American/Asian/Latino/Native American), so I understand what they’re going through.”
The unspoken implication? “I can’t possibly be racist.”
And another: “I don’t see color.” When I or others say this, what I think we’re actually saying is that we actually do see color. We see that another’s color is different than ours, but we want them to know that we like them in spite of that difference.
And possibility the hottest button of them all these days: “All lives matter, not just black lives.”
But it often feels like we’re still struggling with the definition of “all.” The umbrella of “all” doesn’t seem to cover black when we declare all men and women created equal with liberty and justice for all.
Without question, our nation is wrestling with complex issues.
And it can take years to begin to understand the deep impact that any one of these challenges has on individual lives.
To go from where we are to looking at the ways various -isms overlap and intersect, and then expanding out to a globe full of people who are all being impacted by injustice in a variety of ways, well, that’s an intimidating, overwhelming and mind-blowing proposition.
Even committed activists and dedicated advocates regularly burn themselves out trying to conquer oppression’s sky-high mountain, and no one is so perfect so as to do the right thing every moment of every day.
But we do lighten the burden when we each takes on something! You might not be able to change the world, but you surely can affect some change within yourself and in your little corner of Creation.
The reality is that some people will never be unlikely allies, and simply being “nice” or at least civil is about as good as it’s going to get. I understand that that is our human reality.
But here’s what tips the scale for me and actually makes me pray for more people to abandon niceness and claim their roles as unlikely allies in whatever ways they can: “Nice” people do not remain nice for long in conversations about the -isms and their own privilege.
That’s probably because looking at and addressing these uncomfortable realities actually challenges one’s self image as a “nice” person. An attack in response is often the unfortunate result, and the cycle of wounding twists the knife another turn.
Maybe, if we can simply harness the courage of the Holy Spirit to strip away the veneer of niceness, to show up authentically and compassionately for ourselves and others, to love and serve God, friend, neighbor and stranger without condition, then we just might have the chance of becoming extraordinary-if-imperfect champions for one another and advancing the revelation of God’s Kingdom a notch or two.
That sounds like a pipe dream, I know.
And I well understand that patience wears excruciatingly thin for the ones bound in slavery or trapped by oppression.
But the bonds of liberating cooperation did once form – a long time ago, in tall, thick reeds ribboning the River Nile, when the Holy Spirit gathered unlikely allies to bring God’s plans a little closer to fruition.
By the grace of God and with the power of that same Spirit, there’s every reason to believe that it can and will happen again.
Let’s hope it happens soon, for Christ’s sake.
Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant VanderVelden shared this message during morning worship on Sunday, October 4, 2020. It is the ninth sermon of his series, “Unraveled: Seeking God When Our Plans Fall Apart.” Commentary, reflection and scholarship by Nadirah Adeye, Anne Bishop, Lisle Gwinn Garrity, Jennifer Hamlin-Navias, inform the message. (Artwork: Lisle Gwinn Garrity, An Imperfect Ally, SanctifiedArt.org)