Monday, August 25, 2008

Sermon 8-24-2008

Drawn Out
Rev. Ryon Price
United Church of Colchester
August 24, 2008

We are beginning today the first of a nine part series on the book of Exodus. That seems a little daunting for me to preach nine straight Sundays from one book. And I can only imagine it may seem a little daunting for you to sit and listen to nine straight sermons also. But it has just this week been called to my attention that in one year Johan Calvin preached 159 sermons on the book of Job. That’s three plus sermons a Sunday. So maybe we can tolerate just nine.

Over these nine weeks we will follow the Hebrew people as they exodus out from under the yoke of Pharaoh and into the land of Canaan. And, in that story of deliverance we will seek to find our own stories as well.

But first, before we journey out of Egypt we need to remember how it is that the Hebrew people got here in the first place.

The Hebrews were the descendants of a man named Abraham who was called by God, and told that he would be the father of many nations. Abraham had a son Isaac and Isaac had a son Jacob and Jacob had twelve sons. And among the twelve brothers was one named Joseph who was a “dreamer”. And you all know how dreamers are. They drive the IBM engineers in the church mad, because they always have their heads in the clouds but can’t ever seem to come up with anything practical. So the other brothers, constantly annoyed by this dreamer, decide to sell Joseph off into slavery — a scheme which makes me think some of the characters in my own family aren’t quite so bad.

Joseph is sold into slavery and brought to the land of Egypt. Now here in Egypt Joseph’s gift for dreaming actually comes in handy. Having gained the ear of Pharaoh, Joseph prophesies that a famine is coming. He warns Pharaoh to start stockpiling surplus grains. When the famine hits scores of peoples from far and wide come to Egypt in search of help. Egypt gains great wealth and Joseph great honor.

And, as God would have it, among those who come to Egypt in search of food come Joseph’s own brothers, the very ones who had sold him of into slavery. Now my sister Brooke is here today. I wonder, Brooke, what do you think your brother’s reaction to this groveling would have been? But Joseph acts magnanimously. He forgives his brothers. And in a statement which well summarizes the entire first book of the Bible and perhaps all the scriptures, Joseph says to them, “You meant this for evil, but God has meant it for good.”

And with that the whole clan of Jacob’s children comes to live in Egypt under the favor of Pharaoh.

But as the second book of the Bible, Exodus, opens several generations have passed. There is a new Pharaoh now. And this new Pharaoh knows nothing of Joseph. All this new Pharaoh knows is that the Hebrew people are having babies left and right. Out of xenophobic fear this new Pharaoh decides to put an end to the Hebrew line. He tells the two Hebrew midwives, Shiprah and Puah, to go on caring for any Hebrew girls born. But, he says, “If it be a boy then you must kill the child.”

What do you do when a new Pharoah is in Egypt?

Reynolds Price has been one of the most acclaimed professors at Duke University for decades. A writer by trade, and a man of great Christian faith. In 1984 he was diagnosed with a large malignant tumor at the base of his spinal cord. Surgery and radiation ensued. Reynolds Price’s cancer was beaten back, but Reynolds Price the man was left confined to a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waste down. The whole world as he knew it had been changed.

Reflecting on his life in a later book Reynolds wrote, “The kindest thing anyone could have done for me once I finished five weeks of radiation would have been to look me square in the eye and say clearly, “Reynolds Price is dead. Who will you be now?”

A relationship has ended. A job has been lost. Cancer has changed everything. The good times are over; things are from here on out going to be much more difficult. There is a new Pharaoh in Egypt. Your old life is dead. Who will you be now?

Shiprah and Puah, these two Hebrew midwives, they have decided who they are going to be. They have decided that they are going to fear God more than they fear Pharaoh. They report back to Pharaoh and tell him the task he has given them is just too impossible. I would have loved to have been there to see Pharaoh’s blood boil when they told him, “The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women. They are so strong. They have their babies before we can even get there.”

These two courageous souls and not going to cower to the dictates of Pharaoh. They too are strong — strong like the black maid of Montgomery, Alabama Maya Angelou tells about in her autobiography. For forty years she worked in the same white lady’s home, first doing laundry, then keeping house, and finally looking after the children and then later on the grandchildren. The Montgomery Bus Boycotts began, and black people said they would rather walk than ride the buses if they couldn’t ride up front. And the woman’s boss lady wanted to know if her maid would be participating in the boycotts. “Oh no,” she said, “I’m not going to get involved with any bus boycotts. That’s just asking for trouble; and I’m not looking for trouble. No way, I’m going to stay far away from those bus boycotts. In fact, I’m just going to walk wherever I need to go.”

But the charade doesn’t last forever. Pharaoh decides to take a more aggressive approach. He now orders all the people of Egypt into complicity in the extermination. “All Hebrew boys,” he commands, “must be drowned in the Nile River.”

And so it comes down to this. A young Hebrew woman with her three-month old baby boy in her arms on the banks of the Nile. For nine months she nurtured this child in the womb. She jumped the first time he kicked. Giggled the first time he hiccupped. She cried the first time she heard his lungs cry out with life. And for three months she has hidden him away, holding him, muffling his cries in the middle of the night.

And she held tight. For the sake of love she held tight. Even though she knew it wouldn’t last forever, she held very tight.

Some of you will remember the heart-warming and heart-wrenching movie Brian’s Song, a story about two rookie running backs, Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo, on the 1965 Chicago Bears football team. The two made headlines as the first black and white roommates in professional football. We watched Brian’s Song as a school when I was in eighth grade. And to this very day I can still remember the heaviness that fell over me there in the assembly hall of Ed Irons Jr. High School when the movie began with that startling opening line: “Ernest Hemingway said that every true story ends in death. This is a true story.”

All our stories will end in death. We will have to say goodbye. And yet, like this child’s mother, we choose right now to love nonetheless.

I remember the first time I had to help a family say goodbye to a child. I was up late. Distraught over my pastoral charge. What does one say in the face of such pain and loss? As I fretted, Irie came and set down in my lap and she gave me the words. “Hold me,” she said, “hold me like you have all the time in the world.”

That’s right. We hold each other. We cling to each other. We love each other as if we had all the time in the world — because the fact is we don’t.

So wives love your husbands. Husbands love your wives. Parents love your children. Hold them tight while you can. And when it is time to say goodbye, whether for college or forever, know what this Hebrew momma knew and what Tennyson knew also:

‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than not to have loved at all

She bundles the child tight and places him into a small basket that she has covered with tar and pitch. She places that basket into the reeds along the banks of the Nile. She blesses him with words of shalom and turns and runs away. And tears run also. Down her cheeks, and his.

And — again — as God would have it, the daughter of Pharaoh just so happens to be down there bathing in the river. She hears the baby boy’s cries and she knows. “This must be one of the Hebrew’s children,” she says. And there too hidden behind the reeds is the little boy’s sister, who knows just the Hebrew woman who could nurse this baby boy back to health. And here is the real kicker — she gets paid to do it. Paid to be his momma again. How bout that.

This story is an ancient one. Four thousand plus years old. But it’s a modern story also. We live in a dangerous world. And this dangerous world still has its pharaohs. Its mad rulers out to perpetrate genocide — the systematic killing of a particular race or ethnicity of people. For Hitler it was the Jews and the gypsies and the gays. For Slobodan Milosovec it was the Bosnians. For Saddam Hussein it was the Kurds. Today, in Sudan, it is the people of Darfur.

But we know this. We know that in the end good is going to prevail. So no matter how small or insignificant we are — even if we’re just a couple of slave midwives — we, the people of God, will always lend our bodies to the right side of history in support of the oppressed.

You say the little things I do
Will do no good
Never will prevail
To tip the hovering scale
Justice keeps in balance
I never said I thought they would
But I am prejudiced beyond debate
In favor of my right to choose
Which side shall feel
The stubborn ounces of my weight

And the child grows big. And the child grows strong. And the child is given the name Moses, meaning “drawn out” — because he was drawn out of the water. Drawn out of the water in a little boat called, in Hebrew, an “ark”.

I’m looking for an ark right now. The fair is in town and I got a strange call asking me to sit in the dunk booth for the benefit of Burlington Emergency Shelter. Apparently somebody thought some of you might like a chance to try and drown me. I do not know what I was thinking but I said yes to such madness. So next Saturday at 3:30 p.m. you can take your shot. I told Irie and she had the gall to ask how much it was going to cost. “I want to save up,” she said.

But I’m going to cling to a promise, symbolized in a rainbow. I’m going to cling to the promise of God’s words and believe that God is not going to let me drown.

And I’m going to ask you to believe it too.

“When you pass through the waters,” declares the Lord, “I will be with you. When you cross rivers they will not overwhelm you. And when you walk through the fire, the flames will not consume you.”

And when a new Pharaoh comes to Egypt, you remember that no matter how big or how bad he is, that new pharaoh in your Egypt is no match — no match — for the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.

So stay tight. Pick up your Bibles and read the story. Come on this journey with us. Because God is gonna draw his people out of Egypt. You watch.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.