Toorak Uniting Church

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Adrift in the world

Exodus 2: 1 – 10     2 Corinthians 11: 23b – 28
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
29 July 2007

Because we have a baptism today I thought it would be nice to tackle one of the "water stories" in the Bible that are connected with baptism and some of the symbolism that underlies its practice.

In this particular story we find the baby Moses, who will be one of the greatest leaders of God’s people, drifting down a crocodile infested river in a basket. Vulnerable, helpless and at the mercy of powers entirely beyond control.

The Israelites are in trouble. A xenophobic pharaoh has decided they are a threat to his people and that the only way to deal with that is by submitting them to slave labour and genocide. "Work the adults to death and kill all boys at birth", and soon they will be a threat no more!

Fortunately it is not as simple as that. There are good Egyptian people who refuse to follow commands and save at least some of the boys, no matter what pharaoh says and no matter what imagined or real risk he may think those people are posing to Egyptian prosperity and well being.

Unfortunately we don’t have to go as far back as Nazi Germany and the Second World War to find parallels to this situation, both at home and abroad. Fear of the other may not take us quite as far as killing babies, but over time some pretty nasty policies have been implemented both in and outside Australia to keep our fear of "the other" at bay.

Moses’ story, unfortunately, is a story of all times and all places, a myth telling us how humanity works and how history unfolds. It holds up a mirror, so we may recognise ourselves in it and draw back from the violence inducing fear that has caused and is still causing so much damage and destruction everywhere, inviting us at the same time to identify ourselves with the victims instead and see the world from their perspective and join their cause.

In this story Jochebed, a woman married to a Levite man, gives birth to a beautiful baby boy. A precious new born she wants to protect and care for, but whose life is threatened by an evil pharaoh who is ready to squash the new life and take it away from her.
Mamma Jochebed, hoping against hope that somehow he may be saved if she manages to keep him out of the hands of those who are seeking to kill him, fashions a basket out of bulrushes for her baby and sets him afloat in the reeds.
Like one of those hapless kids that are put on planes by parents who can’t raise the funds to leave with the whole family but hope, against hope, that somehow their kids will make it, even where they can’t.

She touches us, Mamma Jochebed, because we all know how difficult it is to let go of our kids, even in the most fortunate and auspicious of circumstances. How much more so when it is a crocodile infested river you have to trust your baby to!

Poor Moses! There he is, adrift in his basket, blissfully unaware of the danger he is in.

Until he is spotted by a most unlikely saviour. Pharaoh’s daughter a core representative of the Egyptian establishment. One of very few who would be able to save him and get away with it. One of very few who does not have to fear repercussions if she picks up this little bundle, because she is above the law.

And here a profound human truth surfaces: the individual poses no threat. Faced with a child fear evaporates and compassion takes over. "Oh, look at it, look at it’s eyes, it’s face, it’s tiny hands….." and evil loses its edge.
Surely, keeping one alive won’t hurt anyone?"

Had pharaoh’s daughter perhaps been longing for a child and never been able to have one up till now, up till this moment where this child floats up to her, as a gift from the gods? Is that why in the midst of genocide she defies the commands of her father and saves this one little boy who will, later on, change the course of history for his people.

Evil is not as straightforward and one dimensional as some make it out to be. Pharaoh has a heart, and a love life, and a daughter he indulges. And the daughter, grown up in the heart of the evil empire, shows compassion towards this little one that drifts into her life from the other side of the river. Receiving the "other" as a gift instead of a threat, as the enemy, as some nasty bug they were trying to get rid of.

That’s why dialogue is so important in a multi cultural society like ours.

Especially with those who are "other" to us and in danger of being identified as "threats to national security" or terror suspects, just because they happened to be born on the other side of the river.

Then Moses’ older sister Miriam appears. Up until that moment hidden in the bulrushes, she has been looking on, watching and waiting.

How much courage does she need to step out of the reeds and up to the pharaoh’s daughter and offer support to find someone to nurse the child? Of course pharaoh’s daughter must have twigged immediately what is going on! But brave little Miriam steps forward never the less and makes her suggestion. Looking after her brother and making it work for everyone.

I wish the Church could be like that: inventive, creative and courageous in the helping of people who are at the mercy of the powers of evil. Making connections so compassion may find tools to work with and peace an opportunity to grow. Watching and waiting perhaps at times, but involved and alert, ready to act and be courageous.

Now, what about Pharaoh? Any feelings of sympathy towards him? Do we all understand where he is coming from? Afraid to be overwhelmed by this pocket of "otherness" in a corner of his large and prosperous empire, he is focussed on national security and the safe guarding of his tradition and culture, trying to protect what is sacred and precious, and in fear of any threat to that from the outside.

Most of us will be all too familiar with the fears of Pharaoh, and infected by them. And that, I might add, is no more than human. To protect and defend what is dear to us: western democracy, our freedom, our prosperity, our culture, the safety of our home, our families. Where it becomes dangerous however is where we let it hook into our basest instincts and forget to look "the other" in the face, ready to try and work it out together, ready to receive them as a gift that could enrich our life rather than a threat to what we’ve already got.

We, as Church people, with our treasury of stories that help us keep things in perspective, should be more aware of that, and more able to guard ourselves against it than any others. And should be able to step in the shoes of Miriam and dare to step up to the powers that be and offer other solutions than death and destruction, so compassion can take over from fear and the course of history be changed. Amen.

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2007

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