“When Our Plans for Our Children Unravel”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
16 August, 2020
Sermon 10 of 12 in the “Unraveled” Summer Sermon Series
Exodus 1:22 – 2:10

Moses’ Mother
Some say my decision was courageous.  And maybe it was.  Others have said it was insane, possibly cruel if things had turned out differently for the child.  And maybe it was.  But I wasn’t thinking about courage.  And cruelty wasn’t something that ever crossed my mind.  I was desperate, and desperate mothers will do crazy things to save the lives of their children—to give them a life.  I placed mine in a basket in the river.  Others will walk hundreds of miles, cross deserts or dangerous bodies of water, to get their children to a safe place . . .  a place where they can envision doing more than living in constant fear or deprivation.  Is it truly the desire of a loving God for some to enjoy all the riches of creation while others face insurmountable odds in order to know a marginally better existence?  And besides, what loving mother would not at least contemplate risking or sacrificing everything for an incrementally better life if what they know is misery?

I’m telling you: it is the sacred power of hope that compels us to risk such crazy, or courageous, or potentially cruel things.

I will never forget the moment my son was born—our second child.  Another expression of the love my husband and I shared and, we believed, an expression of God’s love for us.  Of course, we did not know whether the baby would be a boy or a girl, and I dreaded the former because I knew the legal outcome as well as anyone.  I will admit that my hopes as a mother unraveled just a bit in that moment, even though we Hebrews (Israelites) had been taught since the beginning that a boy baby is a father’s pride and joy, and the proof of a woman’s worth.

But that unspooling, disorienting moment for me was brief.  Having delivered that beautiful little boy, that perfect creation of love, there was nothing to deliberate over.  He would not be tossed into the Nile as Pharaoh had demanded.  He would be hidden, and we would come up with a better way.

My husband was slightly more afraid than I was.  He knew that if we were found out, the cruelty of a tyrant who would dispose of infants as easily as the dish water would just as quickly eliminate a grown man with a family, leaving his wife and daughter bereft and utterly defenseless.  But my husband was also furious with the Pharaoh and anxious about the further abuse he knew would be coming a decade or two from now.  He knew that then, the absence of younger male slaves to literally help shoulder the burden of the economic system created and sustained by our labor would only increase the floggings and punishments to aging bodies no longer able to do what younger men could.

And so, his desperation and conviction met my own.  We talked about how, in our prayers and mulling over our options, each of us had felt the gravity of our vulnerability.  And then, we realized that all we could do is trust the One who had promised our ancestors blessing if we would but call upon the name of the LORD and place our trust in God.  Then, we both discovered a deep peace, a certainty that this faithful God was with us and would be with us as we did this unthinkable thing.

We never imagined in that moment that our son would lead all of Israel to a deeper understanding of God’s faithfulness and freedom.  I shiver to think that we might still be bent over back in Egypt, had that hope and vision not compelled me—us, our entire family—to risk boldly as we acted in concert with God, in hope, to glimpse a brighter future.

 

Moses’ Sister, Miriam
I thought it was adorable when my mother placed my brother in the basket we had spent the previous days creating together, and it was the perfect size.  She had told me she wanted to teach me how to weave baskets, and that the one we would make would be very special.  That I would remember it forever.  Mama told me that most baskets wouldn’t require the bitumen and pitch that we painted on this one—it was sticky and, I discovered, helped it to float.  Which was a relief, because I was shocked and confused when she first told me to bring it all—basket and baby—to the water’s edge, and then to give the whole thing a gentle push.

“But, Mama, why?!?” I asked with alarm.  “He’ll drown!  Please don’t make me do this!”

“Miriam,” she said back to me, “you need to trust me.  We’ve got to trust God.  The basket will hold.  You go and place it among the reeds just there, and keep watch over it at a small distance.”

Well, I was just a little girl, and I was obedient.  So, despite my misgivings, and fearing that I would forever live with the memory of watching my brother sink to the bottom of the river like so many other Hebrew boy babies had done, I took the basket and the baby and set it afloat with a fierce prayer that God’s hands would carry them both to safety.

Imagine my surprise when I saw the Pharaoh’s daughter—I’d heard someone call her Rehema[1]—out bathing not so very far away!  The baby started crying, which startled the woman—I guess the sound of a baby’s cries coming from a basket among the bulrushes doesn’t happen every day!  Rehema told one of her maids to fetch the basket for her.  I held my breath, and peeked through my fingers as I held my hands over my eyes; I was so fearful that she would pick him up and toss him in the water as soon as she recognized that he was a Hebrew boy.

But she didn’t!  It was most astonishing.  Her face softened—almost glowed, just like my Mama’s face did when she held him.  We were both mesmerized: she with him, and I with the both of them.  I marveled at how the daughter of a man so cruel could be so visibly full of compassion and love for another—and especially the offspring of those whom her own family regularly beat and spat upon as if we were less sacred or worthy of life, breath, and dignity.

I tried to calm myself and look indifferent as I walked toward her, as if I was just any child out for a walk.  The Pharaoh’s daughter noticed me and called me near, saying something about the baby being “one of your people” and she herself not in a position to nurse him.

“Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” I asked, breathless at the thought of bringing my mother back to reclaim her child.  “Yes, do,” she instructed me.

When Mama and I returned, Rehema said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will pay you for your trouble.  But when he is weaned, he will come to live with me, where he will have a much better life than you can offer him.”  It was simultaneously insulting and reassuring, but we could not deny the truth of her privilege and our desperate need.  Still, despite all her advantages, there was her recognition that she, too, was vulnerable; like us, she needed others to help her fulfill her heart’s desires.

Rehema named my brother Moses, which means “saved from drowning in water.”  Which is delicious irony for so many reasons, not least of which is that her hateful father’s wretched army would be drowned in the Red Sea waters years later as they chased after us to kill us or at least to re-enslave us.  By God’s strength and power, my brother would lead us on a miraculous exodus to freedom, and inspire me to compose this song: “I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.  The LORD is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him!”[2]

 

Pharaoh’s Daughter, “Rehema”[3]
I had such big plans for my children.  As the daughter of the Pharaoh, the most powerful man far and wide, I knew they would have everything they could possibly want – and I would have the ability to deliver it to them before they even knew they wanted it.  I would have an entire brood of children, and they would all adore me.

But a couple years passed, and I didn’t conceive.  And a few more, and still no child, much less brood of children for me.  I was increasingly at odds with my father, who seemed to care more about demonstrating and expanding his power than he did about connecting with anyone on a personal level.  He treated women as though they were of lesser value than men, just as surely as he treated the Hebrews as less human than we Egyptians.  And, though he mandated that others  be servile toward me, that was only because I “belonged” to him and I was a self-object for him.

As I grew increasingly aware of my powerlessness to have the one thing I yearned for, I also took greater notice of those who had many more wants than my own.  I noticed how many could scarcely indulge their wants because they had so many needs.  I became more sensitive to vulnerability in its many forms.  And I began to understand that vulnerability was what my father feared more than anything else in the world.  Among other things, he feared the vulnerability he faced, should the Hebrew slaves grow numerous enough to organize an army, which would threaten his power, wealth, and status.

And so, he demanded death by drowning for all the male Hebrew babies.  For this woman, who has wanted nothing more than a child to nurture, my father’s edict to eradicate any child—even those whom we see as beneath us—broke something in me.

And maybe it made me aware of a growing unraveling in my heart which tore clean open, that moment I heard the anguished cries of the infant hiding in—of all things—a thatched basket, as I bathed that morning!  Then, as I lifted the helpless creature out of his basket and his cries quieted and his gaze settled upon me with curiosity and expectation, I felt as though finally, the gods had smiled upon me and delivered the child I’d been praying for, for so many years.  My understanding of the world was simultaneously unraveling and being reassembled in entirely new ways.

I instantly realized with absolute clarity that, while I couldn’t fix everything, I could fix this one thing.  Some mother, somewhere, had been faced with the unthinkable decision to dispense with this tiny life she had delivered into this world.  He was Hebrew, for certain.  And as I fell in love with the child, I could not deny that the world we both shared was stacked so much in favor of some of us flourishing, while the others disproportionately struggled, remaining mired in deprivation.  But, what could possibly be right about that?!  The prejudices and partialities I had been steeped in suddenly made no sense to me.

One other thing was certain: I was not in a position to nurse this child.  Happily, a young girl was walking by just at that moment and helped me to find a nurse for my child.  That was another lesson in the truth that each one of us has a gift to offer, and we all need each other though we may not recognize how.

My name is Rehema, which means “compassion and empathy.”  I hope my life has lived up to this meaning, because I believe compassion is a divine attribute we each possess, though sometimes it requires discipline and practice to share it.  And, I think it may be more challenging to practice compassion if we deny that we are advantaged, especially if the world is tilted toward our flourishing while reinforcing the diminished lives of others.  And as I’ve learned from my father, it’s even harder to be compassionate when we fear being vulnerable.

Although my habits of relating to the Hebrews didn’t entirely change overnight—overcoming prejudices and long-established attitudes is a long process of re-learning, especially when everyone around you still operates by the dominant social “playbook”—I did change, as I raised my adopted Hebrew son to become a strong, confident, and compassionate young man.

Eventually, my Moses would have his own struggles with power and privilege, even running away for a time of soul-searching and spiritual transformation.  As a mother, that was excruciating for me.  But I later understood that it was preparing him for the world-changing work God had in mind for him.

I have learned in more ways than one that, when our plans and visions for our children unravel, it almost certainly means that God is at work doing something beyond our field of vision.  So, hold tight—the blessing is coming!  Amen.

 

 

[1] This is midrash, based on the character I imagined for the Pharaoh’s daughter; I google-searched “Egyptian name meaning Compassion, Empathy” and my search results returned Rehema.

[2] Exodus 15:1-2.

[3] As stated in Footnote 1, this is a name I chose for her, based on her character as I’ve imagined it.  This is midrash; there is no literal Biblical basis for this name.

 

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