Barbara Blaisdell – Senior Pastor
First Christian Church – Tacoma, WA
June 21, 2015
1.Prelude: A King Arose Who Did Not Know…
8 Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9 He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” 11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13 The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14 and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them. 15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” 17 But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18 So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” 19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” 20 So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22 Then 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. 2 The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. 3 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. 4 His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him. 5 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. 6 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. 7 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?” 8 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” 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 will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. 10 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.”
If you read or listen to any commentary on culture and religion today, if you read the widely differing reactions to this week’s Supreme Court rulings, if you read the religion page of the Tacoma News Tribune, if you follow bloggers on the web who write about faith and culture, if you read articles posted on Facebook or Instagram, you can’t help but know there is much discussion about the rapid change in American culture and how that complicates the way we do ministry in the church. Indeed, I’ve talked a lot about that over the last 37 months. And it’s true. The huge change out there has made itself impossible to ignore in here. It’s true that this isn’t our grandmother’s church!
And there is something about media in our culture and the catchy and the kitsch that can tempt us to believe that this kind of change has been happening for the first time in history. Change, rapid change in the culture and in the world has always been happening. And the faithful people of God have always had to figure out how best to respond to it with the faith that God will find a way to pull us out of dangerous waters the way God helps see that Moses got pulled out of dangerous waters.
For example, I’ve heard it said, I might even have said, that it was easier to do ministry in an earlier generation when America was a churched culture. For example, it was easier to do ministry when Roger and Barbara Davidson were in active ministry in this church, right? Roger and Barbara, would you let me embarrass you by asking you to wave? Most of you know who they are. But some of our newer attenders may not. Roger served this congregation as Senior Pastor from 1971-1995. And Barbara has served as an Elder and choir member and as a highly respected leader in women’s ministries not only here but across the state and at the national level. I stand in awe of their ministry and could not do what I do if it had not been for what they have done and continue to do. Indeed, I could not do what I do, we could not do what we do, if not for all the clergy and lay leaders who have gone before us.
But I have sometimes teased that ministry was less complicated when Roger was the pastor. And it’s true that the church didn’t always have to compete on Sunday mornings with the mall and the coaches and the Seahawks and the US Open. But there were other challenges and changes in culture in those decades of ministry. Roger and Barbara were called to serve this congregation in 1971. (That’s forty-four years ago! They had to have been children when they started because they aren’t that old now!) 1971, for those of you who lived through it, do you remember what was happening in 1970’s? For those of you who had to study it in American history (which of course is pretty much anyone here under the age of fifty), do you remember what your history books taught about the 1970’s? The Vietnam War was still raging, and the anti-war protests at home were hitting a crescendo. I can’t help but think that Roger was quietly having conversations with mothers or fathers or sons as each one struggled with the right response to the war. And as the decade moved on, a long economic recession and an increasing divorce rate had to put stress on families. And whatever puts a stress on families also puts a stress on the congregation that serves those families. In addition, Watergate, which began in 1972, undercut trust in all leaders and institutions, which had serious consequences for the church. By the way, did you know that in the mid-twentieth century, part of the Disciple tradition of tolerance of opinion in parts of the church included electing elders who believed that women should not be ordained or be in leadership in the church, those who believed that divorced people should be disfellowshipped (that is kicked out of a congregation) and that inter-racial marriage was unbiblical and racial segregation was God’s will? Now think about that, some sixty years later. Would we call those positions Christian? It was leaders like Roger and Barbara and others who led us away from those despicable positions toward better understandings of the limits of the differing opinions we could agree to as Christian. Bigotry cannot be tolerated as Christian even as we discover it in ourselves.
So what does any of this have to do with Moses being placed in a reed basket in the Nile, you might well ask? That’s a good question. Here’s my answer.
Moses’ story, like any of our stories, doesn’t begin with Moses. It begins with a guy named Joseph. Do you remember Joseph? He’s the guy with the rainbow coat, the coat his father Jacob gave him. He’s Jacob’s favorite and youngest son, whose jealous big brothers sell him into slavery in Egypt where he ends up serving the Pharaoh, the King of Egypt. In fact, he serves Pharaoh so well that by his vision and insight and wisdom, he saves not only the Egyptian elite from starvation during a great drought and famine but also those serving the Egyptians from all over the world and even including some of Joseph’s own family in Israel. As our story picks up today, it has been about 400 years since the time of Joseph. Of course, a good deal has happened during that time. But the biblical writers of Exodus, in their brief non-preacherly fashion, take only a few short verses to tell us that there is a new king on the throne in Egypt. A king “who does not know Joseph,” by which they mean to say, a king who does not remember the gratitude owed to this foreigner who saved the Egyptian elite and had asked in return that the slaves and foreigners from Israel and around the world living amongst the Egyptians be protected out of gratitude. This Pharaoh did not know his own history. He did not know Joseph, the slave boy from Israel, who saved the Egyptian people and a bunch of other people too. He represents all of us who forget our history, who forget the gratitude we owe to those who have gone before.
The irony in this story is that, while this king doesn’t remember Joseph, he does recognize the Hebrew people as a powerful people for the first time in history. Now, let me be clear, it is highly unlikely, from an historical perspective that the Israelites referred to in verse 7 of our scripture of today, were all direct descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. These people ended up in Egypt as servants, as merchants and peasants and farmers serving Pharaoh and the elite of Egypt. They would have inter-married with other servants and merchants and peasants and farmers from all over the world—or from as far across the world as Pharaoh’s ships sailed and as far across the world as the traders Egypt traded with sailed. So the Israelites, the Hebrews we are talking about here, are a mixed-race, a mixed-nationality group who have likely also forgotten Joseph. But this Pharaoh, for the first time, sees this group of peasants as powerful and threatening and thereby plants the seed God can use for their liberation.
This Pharaoh, have you noticed that he isn’t even given a name? This King known only as the one who has forgotten to whom he owes gratitude, is also the one so frightened by his own peasants, his own workers, that he gives an order to turn them into slaves. (Please notice that those who forget that we are not self-made, that we owe a part of who we are to those who have gone before are the ones who are too afraid.)
Look with me at Exodus 1, verse 11: “Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor.” (NRSV) Or as Eugene Petersen translates it: “So they organized them into work-gangs and put them to hard labor under gang-foremen.” (The Message) Now my friends, that is some radical change!! Can you imagine going from shop-owner or farmer to slave laborer? May I point out that this is exactly what happened to German Jews after Krystalnacht, that first night of terror in Germany against the Jews and to Japanese Americans in WWII when the internment order came and they were given twenty-four hours to pack up their lives into whatever they could carry. Everything else to be stolen from them while they were carted off (one of the initial places our neighbors of Japanese descent were herded to was in the stables, the animal stables at the Puyallup fairgrounds!) This is the order this king who did not remember Joseph gave regarding the foreigners who lived among his people: they would be rounded up from their homes and farms and places of business and brought under the lash of work gangs. And to that order he added one other: that every boy baby born to the slaves be slaughtered at birth by the midwives working for Pharaoh.
The overseers of Pharaoh indeed gathered the “foreigners” up—even though most of them had been born in Egypt and had lived there for generations. They were gathered up, taken from their homes and pressed into slavery by the overseers. But the midwives of Pharaoh would not do his bidding. They would not kill newborn babies. And when Pharaoh heard this he asked them why not and they told him that the slave women were so strong that they gave birth before the midwives could even get there. Then this king that did not remember Joseph, this king who did not remember that he owed the survival of his people to Joseph and his descendants, ordered that his soldiers go looking for all the male babies of slaves and drown them in the Nile. So Moses’ birth mother (who was likely a child of 14 or 16) hid him in a basket of reeds and floated him among the reeds in the shallows of the Nile where Pharaoh’s own daughter found him and adopted him and then arranged for his birth mother to nurse him.
This first story of Moses is not about Moses. It is first about Joseph who saved a whole region from starvation and it is then about those who forgot what they owed to Joseph and the heroes of the past. We need to remember and give thanks for the heroes of the past. The story charges that the King’s failure was that he did not remember, did not know Joseph. And because he did not remember, he was afraid. May I point out that the heroes of this story are the women? The midwives who refused the orders of a king could have faced instant death but they risked their lives to save children. And the girl, likely a young teen who gave birth to Moses and her friends who helped her hide the birth and the baby, risked death to save a child. Heroes all. Even Pharaoh’s daughter, who might hope to escape the death penalty, risked her father’s favor and wealth for the sake of an orphan, foundling, and immigrant child. Finally, this first story of Moses is about heroic women who, along with God, saved him from dangerous waters.
And they might have done otherwise. The midwives of Pharaoh might have tried to scapegoat the Hebrew slave women. How stupid to be getting pregnant while in slavery anyway. They should expect what’s coming to them. But they didn’t. The Hebrew women might have denied anything was changing out there and continued to do what they were doing as if nothing had changed and then feigned shock when what they were doing resulted in the death of babies. But they didn’t.
We can be tempted to do those things, can’t we? We can be tempted to scapegoat victims of violence. Or we can be tempted to keep doing what we’re doing the same way we’ve always done it, fussing about why parents aren’t bringing their children to church anymore, fussing at the state of the world, fussing that violence against children is on the rise, that more and more children are dying violent deaths while not ever asking what God might be wanting us to do differently to get Moses out of that water!!
But that is not what those women of God did and that is not what we will do. Instead they remembered Joseph and his God, the God of all nations and peoples, the God of justice and love. They protected that baby and helped God bring that baby safely out of dangerous waters, a baby who would lead a people, a diverse, international people out of slavery and into freedom. And that is what we will do!
One of the blogs I’ve read in the past several days talked about those who would defend the Confederate flag as a symbol of heritage. I have never lived in the South. That particular symbol has never been mine. But the blogger was arguing that the problem with that flag being used to symbolize a rich heritage is that the folks who would use it that way had failed to protect their brand. He wrote:
“Here’s what I mean from a marketing perspective. Disney will sue the pants off anyone, big or small, who uses Mickey’s likeness without their approval. Remember the stickers of Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes urinating on various logos? Bill Watterson, the strip’s creator, sued to protect that brand from such usage. Does Coca-Cola let just anyone use their iconic logos whenever they see fit? Try to sell merchandise with your favorite college’s logo without their permission and watch the cease and desist letter arrive promptly in your mailbox.
These entities protect their brand so that it doesn’t become soiled. So it’s not misused for despicable purposes. So it’s not twisted beyond the sanctity of those who created.” (http://asaingram.blogspot.com/2015/06/southerners-you-didnt-protect-your-brand.html)
I cannot speak to the branding of the Confederate flag. It is not my brand. But I do believe that an open-minded Christianity is guilty of failing to protect its brand. Too many of us were intimidated by the past success of fundamentalist evangelicals. Too many of us lacked the courage to say to fundamentalist friends and family that we, in fact like and believe in dinosaurs, thank you very much; that we have gay friends and family whom we very much respect and have had for a number of years and too many of us haven’t figured out how to think about what our faith teaches about that. I have no trouble telling you what I think. But you are Disciples and so I think it’s even more important to give you the tools to help you think about what you think. Those of you who know me know that I love the Bible. And I’ve studied it long enough to trust that when studied thoughtfully, wisely, with the right tools, and in context, it will not lead us astray. But “the Bible is much more easily reverenced than read.” Not only that, what the Bible says on of the controversial issues of the day is far more complicated and conflicted than can be put in a sound bite or a bumper sticker… which means that those who claim to know what it says in just a few words don’t really know what it says. So I want to give you the tools to think carefully about these things. I am writing a curriculum for this fall for our Small Group ministry using Peter Gomes’ wise book on the Bible entitled, The Good Book. It is an excellent resource on the complexity of scripture and especially on how it has been read and used in American public life over our history. But there is more urgency even than that. So three weeks from today, on July 19th in the parlor after church, I invite you to join me for an hour- long Bible study and discussion on what the Bible really says about marriage and about sexuality, including homosexuality. Over the next three weeks I’ll be sending via the congregational email and printing for you to pick up here in the parlor, some suggested Bible readings and questions for discussion. And when we finish on the 19th, we can decide if we want to talk further.
We can learn from those heroic women who were courageous enough to rescue Moses from dangerous waters. We aren’t being asked to risk life and limb—just some emotional intensity as we talk with one another about tough things. We can do that, can’t we? I am so grateful that forty years ago, my brave clergy forbearers led the way to protect the children of biracial marriages from the violence of being named illegitimate and the children of divorce from the violence of having no church home. And today I want to join their ranks by saying that this midwife, this mother, this daughter of the privileged Pharaoh will stand against those who would threaten immigrant children and LGBTQ children and black and brown children and all children threatened by gun violence and I invite you to join me. Let us wade into the waters and rescue a baby Moses who represents all children who are in danger that they might show us how to stand up to Pharaoh and say, “Let our people go!”