Sermon: Sunday, August 27, 2023 – Exodus 1:8 – 2:10

In one way, the story of baby Moses in a basket seems a perfect scripture for a baptism Sunday.  There’s a young child, there’s water, and many of us grew up with Sunday School lithographs like “this” which made the whole thing look quite lovely.

In another way, the backstory of why this little baby was set afloat in a pitch-lined basket in the first place is the kind of thing that makes the hairs stand up on the back of the neck… and yet aligns closely enough with aspects of life in the 21st century that we’ll learn from it, one way or another.

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First, a quick word about these ancient stories of our spiritual forebears: here and there, bits of external evidence show up that corroborate the stories (there is, for example, some evidence further south along the Nile that speak of a widespread famine that would have aligned with the time of Joseph – see ) but for the most part, it’s only the books of Genesis and Exodus that have knowledge of Abraham and Sarah, and their descendants down to Moses.  In the way that some biopics will be a mixture of historic figures and events, whose stories are told pretty close to the historic record, and composite characters, whose traits are based in fact but assembled in a way that helps the story move along, we can approach stories like this one about the early days of Moses more from the standpoint of “what does this tell us about human behaviour, and the presence of God” rather than getting hung up on historicity.  There are things in the story of Moses that feel legendary, somewhat like a fable, and there are things that feel more factual, and as we see world leaders in 2023 doing cruel and bizarre things seemingly beyond belief, it’s hard to look at the story of Moses and say, “well, that couldn’t happen.”   I invite you to engage the story in whatever way it sits with you.

Today’s reading opens with the Egyptian Pharaoh and a problem.  The Hebrew people were the human engines that drove his economy, and they were getting numerous.  Regarding them as a commodity rather than as humans befitting respect, Pharaoh and his court were looking for the right balance: not enough Hebrews = not enough muscle to do the back-breaking and menial jobs that need doing; too many Hebrews = potential enemies if there was ever a rebellion.  Comfortable that they had enough to make the economy run, the best way to solve this, in Pharaoh’s mind, was to address the surplus by making sure that the boy babies did not survive infancy.  A horrible plan – and yet, a plan that we see in our news headlines today as people of ethnic, religious or sexual minorities are officially targeted by the state, and either limited or eliminated.

Pharaoh had a plan but he needed collaborators to carry it out.  Not understanding the deep connection between midwives and mothers and babies, but knowing that a midwife would have better opportunity than anyone to carry out his barbarous plan, he summons to his court two midwives who work with Hebrew women giving birth. The midwives hear his plan and play along, but in reality they will have none of it and are prepared to engage in civil disobedience. Rightly fearing for their lives at disobeying Pharaoh, they don’t refuse to his face but manage to come up with a wonderful excuse: “these Hebrew women are so vigorous – by the time we know a woman is in labour, she’s already had the child and is back to work!”  Whether there’s even an ounce of truth to that, we do not know, but it’s a great cover.

Pharaoh, sensing that his strategy needs to go wider, puts his genocidal decree out to everyone, not just the midwives.  And even with that, the Hebrew nation kept increasing.   Among those who escaped the plan, was Moses, a child who would grow up to lead the people out of this place hard labour – resurrected, as it were, from enslavement to freedom.

In this first scene, the midwives choose their allegiance: they hear Pharaoh’s command, that the infant Hebrew boys be extinguished, but they also hear a higher authority: the God of Sarah and Abraham, their guard and their guide, and within that, touched a very basic human response to defend human dignity.  They were not, in the beginning at least, part of a big formal movement; they just had a deep sense of right and wrong that would not be swayed by Pharaoh: neither by his unmitigated power, nor by the fear he tried to elicit.  And in this, we make a mental note: sometimes transformative resistance is big and official and formal but most often it starts with a Shiphrah or a Puah refusing to do the Pharaoh’s will, or Rosa Parks refusing to get off an Alabama buss, or Viola Desmond refusing to move from the white-only section of a Nova Scotia movie theatre.

The image of baby Moses in a basket, has been known to me as a sentimental Bible story since childhood, commemorated in everything from those Sunday School Lithographs of the 1940s to stained glass windows.  But there’s nothing sentimental about this story, as Jochebed, the mother of Baby Moses, knowing that he will die if he stays with her, sets him afloat with hopes that the he will live a long life.  Left on the shore in the bulrushes, secretly supervised by his big sister Miriam, the baby is discovered by a maid in the Egyptian court, and delivered to the daughter of the Pharaoh.

We have here an intertwining of actions and ironies working together for good: the daughter of the same Pharaoh who demanded the murder of Hebrew boy babies, rescues and raises one.   When a wet nurse is found by Miriam, who volunteers to find such a woman, lo and behold, it is the child’s own Hebrew birth mother.  We can imagine mama Jochebed singing Hebrew songs to baby Moses, teaching him things about his people that he would not learn from the Egyptian court.  And as we see this terrible story turned on its head, I invite you to bring to mind all those ways that we see God’s commitment to love and light taking shape in human form, even when things are bleak: times when we have seen good assert itself amidst overwhelming evil…times in our own lives when unexpected, even miraculous interventions turned things around… times when kindness or advocacy that we’ve been involved in, through community organizations, through the Church, through individual decisions and actions, have been pivotal in someone else’s life. Yes, there are also more than enough places where things don’t work out, including places where I or we have been busy with other things, or distracted, or unwilling to actually let go of my privilege, but those exceptions can have the power to refocus us on the positive changes that God wants us to be about in this world we live in.  And to make it very, very explicit, on this morning when we have celebrated with Ben and Kahla and Kinsley, baptism is a time when we remind ourselves of the importance of our influence in the lives of the children that are in our circle of care, whether they are our children, our nephews, our granddaughters, our neighbours, or the beloved youngest members of our community of faith.  Our willingness to demonstrate our love, our commitment to justice, our commitment to the future of this planet, our openness to diversity and difference, and our willingness to take risks on behalf of things that make positive differences, can make a huge difference in a child’s life.

Elsewhere in the Bible, and in the history books, we learn the names of various characters in this Bible story.   But in the reading from the book of Exodus, only three characters get named: the baby Moses, and the two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah.  Even the Pharaoh only gets called “the Pharaoh.”   Knowing that the two midwives are honoured by name is a reminder that nobody needs a title or position to be engaged in positive change.   Pharaoh Ahmose would be remembered by the history books, but the ones commemorated by name in our faith history are Shiphrah and Puah. These women in many ways were the midwives of the entire future of the Israelites.  They were the midwives of the Israelites’ journey from bondage to freedom, and the midwives, even, of civil disobedience in the name of a greater good.  Through the saving power of these two women, they and the entire nation were blessed.

In this episode from our early faith history we are called to pay attention to a world where Pharaoh still targets and marginalizes.  Contrary to that, we are being continuously engaged by a God who believes in our power to change and be changed:  trusted to reach deep into our character, to act and advocate, make a difference, prove that the way things are is not the way things need to be.

The disempowering, targeting, and limiting of ethnic, religious and sexual minorities in our world, and of earth itself, diminishes the humanity of all.  And so we receive this call to attentiveness and action, with thanksgiving to the Holy One who wants all of humanity, in fact all of creation, to have freedom, and agency, and life.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.


References consulted:

Andrews, Mesu.

Criss, Doug.

Pressman, Hannah Graham.

Tamar, Kadari.

Windle, Brian.

© 2023 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.  A sermon preached in Canmore.