Rev. Melanie Harrell Delaney
August 24th, 2014
8Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10Come, 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. 12But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14and 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.
15The 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.” 17But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” 19The 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.” 20So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. 21And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22Then 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.”
2Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. 2The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. 3When 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. 4His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.
5The 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. 6When 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. 7Then 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?” 8Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 9Pharaoh’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. 10When 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.”
“Did you know you should’ve been a Wingate instead of a Harrell?” My grandfather asked me with a twinkle of mischief in his eye. “A what?” I asked. “A Wingate. You should’ve been Melanie Wingate.” My heart started racing as my mind immediately ran to theories of adoption. Was I not really related to my family? What did my grandfather mean? I stared at Grandad with wide eyes. “Well,” he said, “I’ve been doing some research on our family history. Your great, great grandfather’s name used to be Wingate. But then he got into some trouble. Got caught up the KKK. Beat up an African American man. He went to prison for awhile. When he got out of prison, he realized what he had done. He was so remorseful that he changed his name to his mother’s maiden name. Eventually, he fell in love and got married. Had a baby boy (my father, your great grandfather) and gave him the new last name too. Harrell. That’s it. You should’ve been a Wingate, but because of a few bad choices and a few good ones, you’re now a Harrell!”
I was stunned. It had never occurred to me that I might have had a different name. That I might have had a different story. What if my grandfather hadn’t realized his mistakes? What if he hadn’t realized the sin of racism, the evil of what he had done? What if he hadn’t repented of his mistake, hadn’t changed his name, hadn’t met the woman who became my great, great grandmother? If I was a Wingate, I might have been taught differently, shaped differently, been a different person…if I even existed at all…
You could almost see the ripples of time, extending out like ripples after a leaf falling into a still pond. A decision made, a series of decisions to follow, with endless movement from then to now. Circles of disturbance or beauty, depending on your perspective, extending forever outward.
It’s sometimes hard to follow the ripples of our scripture when we read them only in bits and pieces on a Sunday morning – the way each event in Biblical history led to another. The story of baby Moses in the basket is a beloved tale that surely many of you have heard before. But do you know the connection to Joseph, who we were following the last two weeks? Do you know the ripples of Joseph’s relationship with his brothers, the animosity that got him sold into slavery in Egypt, his rise to power under the Pharaoh such that he could guarantee his family’s survival in the midst of famine, with the trade-off that they all become slaves in Egypt, the ripples of time that passed after that to get us to where we are today…
The story goes that because of Joseph’s success and power, the Israelite people, Joseph’s people, thrived. Sure, they were forced to do hard labor under the Egyptians, but they had enough food and shelter, enough of what they needed. Babies were born and their babies were born. Enough generations passed that no one yet lived who remembered the famine that brought the Israelite people to Egypt. No one had actually known Joseph, or his brothers. A new pharaoh reigned now, one who could care less about Joseph or the way he had helped the Egyptians, too. The new pharaoh didn’t know the history, only saw the present.
When he looked out on the land, the new Pharaoh saw a thriving population of Israelite people. Enough to get the work done, but also enough to revolt if the thought ever occurred to them. The new Pharaoh felt threatened. So he ordered the Israelites to work harder, to suffer more. And when that didn’t slow them down, Pharaoh became desperate. He sent for the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah. Scripture says in verse 16 that he told them, “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.” 17But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.”
When the Pharaoh realized that the boys were still being allowed to live, he sent his decree out all over Egypt, that no boys would be allowed to live. Without boys to grow into men, he knew, an entire generation would be lost. The Israelite community would be stunned.
This is the world into which a little baby boy named Moses was born. A world of inequality and slavery, of immediate danger for any little boy, of grief and sadness for mothers and fathers, of lost hope for an entire group of people.
But you’ll remember that we’ve been seeing in our scripture an important message: that even in the midst of hopelessness, of darkness and pits of despair, there are glimpses of light. Even in the most desperate of situations, there is always a pin-prick of hope. That is what Moses’ mother saw the day she gave birth to her beautiful son. She saw his face and knew there was hope. Scripture tells us that she hid her son for three months, risking her life to give him his, before she knew she couldn’t hide him any longer. So she placed him in a basket, cradled by reeds and rocked by the rhythm of the river, and although she was too sad to watch her baby float away down the river, she asked her daughter, Moses’ sister Miriam, to stand guard by the river and watch. To pray. To hope.
The rest of the story is history: Moses survived, pulled out of the river by Pharaoh’s own daughter.
Thanks to Miriam’s presence at the right time, Moses’ own mother was able to nurse and care for Moses through his childhood, until Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him as her own. Like Joseph, Moses grew into power there in the palace. Positioned to protect the God’s people and, ultimately, save them from oppression.
Ripples. From Joseph to his brothers, their descendents to the Hebrew people in our scripture. From one Pharaoh to the next, an evil decision here and a series of courageous decisions to follow. The ripples of each decision echoing out through time, setting up God’s story of liberation and hope.
But what if the midwives hadn’t been so courageous? What if they had been too fearful to risk their own lives for the sake of slave women’s babies? Thank God for their courage. Thank God for their willingness to stand against the tide of the powerful in order to do what they knew was right. Thank God for Shiphrah and Puah.
And what if Moses’ mother hadn’t the strength to hide him for three months? What if she had given up, given in? Thank God for her boldness, her smart thinking. Thank God for her courage, also, for everything that it would have taken her to build the basket, the tears that must have fell as she placed him so lovingly inside, the soft kisses of goodbye, and the trust in God that she mustered as she watched the basket float in the river…ripples moving outward in constant motion…
Historians know the power of a single moment in time; how a single decision made, whether conscious or unconscious, can change the world. Teachers know the same thing. I have a friend who taught for many years in Baltimore Maryland for Teach for America. Teach for America is a program that equips and sends young, passionate, teachers into inner-city schools to ensure that all children, even those living in poverty, receive an excellent education. It’s an effort to break the cycle of poverty through education, to invest and believe in children of all socio-economic backgrounds.
My college room-mate joined Teach for America right after graduation. She moved across the country to a city in which she knew no one, to teach in one of the most difficult environments. Her 2nd grade students were wild, angry, disobedient, and disrespectful. But, as she learned, they were also hungry most of the time, scared of their neighborhood gangs at home, and left to their own devices while mom and dad worked 3-4 jobs to pay the bills. The kids were rebellious because they were used to being on their own. They were wild because they were hungry and tired.
The first year that my friend taught in Baltimore, she cried a lot. She was exhausted and frustrated and I could tell that she rarely smiled. She told stories of situations in her classroom that I couldn’t have made up if I tried. My heart broke for my friend, and for the kids who she wanted to help so badly, but just couldn’t figure out how. She did her best to love, respect, and teach every child.
Since then, my friend has moved to another school, but her former students still reach out to her. They have gone on to middle school, learned to play the trumpet, joined the basketball team. They have gotten A’s and C’s and some have been more successful than others. But they have also written her little notes to say thank you, to invite her encouragement, to keep up a relationship that has mattered to them over the years.
Ripples. A choice to respect others in the face of disrespect. A choice to stand tall in the face of discouragement. A choice to love despite the circumstances. Who can say that my friend Emily hasn’t changed the world?
And as a matter of fact, who can say YOU haven’t changed the world?
Each day, every single one of us makes choices. Sometimes it’s the big decisions: will we stand up to the bully at school, argue with our boss on behalf of the custodial staff? Will we sacrifice some of our own paycheck, whether through increased taxes or by charitable giving or both, to make sure resources are more fairly distributed in the world? Or maybe it’s a smaller decision: could we give up our favorite cup of coffee in favor of a fairly-traded one? Or would you be willing to give an extra share of groceries to the Emergency Assistance Center, or buy the homeless man on the corner a hot hamburger, or you know, maybe just brighten the day of an exhausted family at the table across the restaurant by offering to pick up their meal tab? Or buy the person’s coffee behind you in the drive-through?
There are decisions that we know connect us with other people—whether we tip the barista who makes our afternoon latte or smile or scowl at the cashier at the hardware store as he tells us how many hundreds of dollars lighter our bank account will soon be. As a parent, I know that each time I yell at my children – whether they absolutely, completely deserve it, or not – I am affecting them for better, or worse, or both.
We all make ripples in the river of time every day. From the way we respond to one another, to where we give and spend our money, to what we’re willing to take a stand on and stand up to.
I am grateful for the midwives who stood up to Pharaoh in our story, and amazed by Moses’ mother for her courage and faith to follow her heart. I am humbled by the wisdom of Moses’ sister, Miriam, to risk her safety by speaking up to the Pharaoh’s daughter. As I watch the news, I am also grateful for the nurses and doctors who continue to treat and care for Ebola victims, even risking their own lives. I am humbled by pastors in Ferguson, Missouri who are standing between protestors and police, offering prayers and vocal encouragement for peace. I am rooting for all of the young people who are returning to school and who will have the courage to stand up to bullying, to be kind to and befriend the one they see standing on the edge of the playground.
And I am rooting for each of you, as you put your own faith into action this week. I am rooting for the choices you make that will ripple out beyond you, that will, with God’s help, make this world a better place.
“For what does the Lord require of you? But to seek justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God…” (Micah 6:8)
Make ripples this week: of justice, kindness, humility, and love.