At the River’s Edge

A Sermon by
The Rev Barbara Mraz
August 21, 2011
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St. Paul Minnesota

“The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “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.” But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” 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.” So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 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. 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?” Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” 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 1:8-2:10

One of the things I learned in my family was to worry about money. The Depression of the 1930’s left an imprint on my parents and grandparents that never faded.
So the reason my grandma advised me to get an education was a defensive one: “No one can take it from you.
When I got my first paying job at fifteen, my parents preached the virtues of the savings account: “Even ten dollars a month, Barbara, that will grow.”
They practiced what they preached, worked hard, and so had a decent life in their later years because of their frugality and social security. Their worst fears never came true: that their children would have to take care of them in their old age. The “Greatest Generation” did things that way.
So in these days when financial predictions and uncertainties swirl around us like an angry river, threatening to sweep many of us downstream towards the rapids of ruin, my genetically-primed anxiety kicks in, intensified by being a single woman of a certain age who spent much of her professional life as a teacher.
And so I drag out the numbers and the calculator and microscopically analyze my financial picture to reassure myself that the little dam I have built to protect myself will hold. The bottom line is always the same: “I think I’ll be all right.”
And then the market tanks, the Dow plummets and I bring out the calculator again in what I have come to see as an almost sinful indulgence of my anxiety.
I’m not alone here. The relentless, ever-changing news of the economy and its effect has swirled around us for so long now that it threatens to drag down the country if not the world in the undercurrent of uncertainty and fear. If you’re not affected, you are lucky indeed.
But it’s not just the economy that threatens. It’s the heartbreak — the news of soldier suicides and Somali starvation, killing weather, job losses — that is borne by the endless river that is the news, and we try to keep our heads above water so as to breathe the oxygen of hope.
How do we exist at the river’s edge? How do caring, concerned people stay informed about what is going on, and still not be swept away by futility and fear, or worse, fall into the water and give up?
A lot of our religious history happened by the river.
There were at least two times when our spiritual ancestors, the Israelites, were enslaved: first by the Egyptians about 1400 CE, then by the Babylonians, around 500 C.E. Babylon was in part of what is present-day Iraq. So the Jews went from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the promised land of Zion, then back to slavery in Babylon.
The tone of both captivities is captured in Psalm 137:
“By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.”
It wasn’t just the whippings; it was the nuanced indignities that human beings can inflict on other, the Babylonian captors have the nerve to tell the Hebrews to entertain them by singing some of the happy songs about their earlier lives. “They required of us, mirth,” the Psalm says. But the Hebrews hung up their harps on the willows near the river and would not sing.
Later in the Psalm we learn the Hebrews brutal wish for their captors:
“ Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us. Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.”
Because that is what was being done to Hebrew babies in Babylon: they were drowned in the river.
With that background we arrive at today’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures. On the banks of the River Nile, God’s chosen people, the Hebrews, live enslaved, this time by the Egyptians.
And a decree went out from the Egyptian Pharaoh to the midwives: “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews, you shall throw into the Nile.”
What could motivate such indescribable cruelty – throwing babies into rivers? What breeds this hatred is the same thing that motivates all tyrants: fear. The Pharaoh fears the power and steadfastness of the Jews, and that eventually they will join with the enemies of Egypt to fight against him.
So the Hebrew babies are thrown onto the rocks of the Nile and swept away.
But at the river’s edge, God was at work.
The midwives who had been instructed by the Pharaoh to drown the male babies couldn’t do it because they feared God. So they lied, and said that these Hebrew women are so strong they give birth before we get there and hide the babies. What can we do?
Then a Jewish woman gives birth to a fine son. She hides him for three months and then puts him in a little ark, a waterproof basket, and carefully floats it among the reeds at the river’s edge, and with courage and faith, she watches and waits.
Her hope is rewarded when the good-hearted daughter of the Pharaoh finds the baby and, even though she knows what he is, raises him as her own. She names him “Moses,” which means “taken out,” of the water, as this greatest of Hebrew leaders would later take his people out of slavery.
At the river’s edge there, in Egypt, as the Nile carried away so many tender bodies, baby Moses was saved because several women, were strengthened by God to say no.
These women are our spiritual ancestors.
Or are they?
We see most Biblical figures as larger than life: mighty Moses, raising his staff to part the raging waters of the Red Sea: tender Mary, young, unmarried, scared, still saying yes to God; big, brash Peter, the outspoken fisherman, the rock on whom Jesus says be will build his church.
These people are epic. Us? We may be clueless as to what God even wants from us, and feel we don’t have that much to give anyway.
So we sit at our own river’s edge and watch things go by: events, people, ideas, emotions, time. Occasionally, we will pull something out of our river and sit with it to no good end: anxiety about money or about the future; fears for our health and that of those we love; concern that we are not “living up to our potential,” Other times, we close our eyes and refuse to see the starving babies, floating by on the. six o’clock news.
At our own river’s edge, this place of discernment or doubt, of action or inaction, what can be most dangerous are the dried up perceptions and stereotypes that can pollute the future lurking there in the bulrushes
Several years ago, I was at a conference for educators and college students on multiculturalism. One evening, a distinguished professor of African-American Studies from the University of Minnesota was giving a lecture on the early Egyptians. He presented a convincing case that they were dark-skinned, black people, in some ways ancestors of black Americans. He showed us pictures of the glories of ancient Egypt: their accomplishments in art, mathematics, astronomy and architechrue, especially the construction of the pyramids.
After a while, a seventeen-year old student whom I knew to be Jewish, raised his hand and said quietly, “And those pyramids were built by my people, whom your people kept under the lash.”
The lecturer was clearly caught off-guard. He stumbled around, and the best he could do with was to say that this had been “a different kind” of slavery. None of us bought it, and all of us there had our historical assumptions challenged and relearned the importance of any kind of stereotype, no matter how politically correct.
The story of what has been called “the American Exodus” is the novel by John Steinbeck about the Great Depression called, The Grapes of Wrath. It takes a single family from the exodus from the parched land of Oklahoma, to the exile on Highway 66, and to the Promised Land of California. It is, among other things, a novel about starvation in America and the dignity of wrath.
The Joad family is forced of their farmland in Oklahoma after years of unprecedented drought hits the American southwest in the 1930’s
The Joads buys a rickety, used truck, pack up their meager belongings and large family and head west to the Promised Land, California, where a handbill tells them, fruit picking jobs are as plentiful as the oranges on the trees.
This proves not to be the case, and by the end of the novel, the Joads have lost everything, including several family members. They have no jobs, no money, no food, no hope. They flee the flooding Colorado River and find refuge in an abandoned boxcar. It is there that the eldest daughter, Rose of Sharon– whose husband has run off — gives birth to a stillborn baby. Uncle John has no choice but to throw the baby in its apple box coffin into the swirling waters of the river because you can’t bury a baby in a flood.
The water rises and the family flees the boxcar for higher ground. They stagger through the rain into an abandoned barn. Here they find a young boy, kneeling over his father, who is near death from starvation. He has given the meager food supply to his son.
Ma Joad, the rock of the family, sends the others outside that so that the childless, stunned Rose of Sharon can save the life of the dying man as only she is in physical condition to do.
At the edge of the swollen river, when hope is gone and all apparent resources have been used up, God acts through the women whose humanity overcomes propriety and whose compassion will not be destroyed by desperation.
To say that this strength and wisdom and love is not available to each of us would be to restrict divine power to the pages of Scripture. It would be to make a statement about God that is not really ours to make. But the reality is that all centuries are equidistant from God, and none of us is powerless to love at the river’s edge. Amen.

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