Adrift and Helpless

As we are all staying at home during COVID-19, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

— (Rev) Andrew Jensen

Adrift and Helpless

Scripture: Exodus 8:1-2:10

My sermon title this week is Adrift and Helpless. I chose it partly because it’s the way a lot of people are feeling these days, during the pandemic. We are cut off from familiar things and people. We feel alone, isolated, like we’ve lost control over our lives.

But the main reason I chose it is because of the baby Moses. What could be more adrift and helpless than an infant floating in a wicker basket in the Nile?

Think about all that could go wrong:

His basket could spring a leak – wicker isn’t the most naturally watertight building material and even pitch can miss some gaps.

Then there are the crocodiles – probably the princess’ guards had already checked out that stretch of the riverbank, but their job was to protect her, not some random baby the king had ordered thrown into the river. They might even feel some duty to carry out the king’s orders and make sure the baby drowned, although no soldier or guard would relish that kind of duty.

And there’s Moses himself. He was three months old, just old enough that he couldn’t be hidden anymore. Why? Because a baby that age is getting bigger and more active. What if he simply moved too much and tipped the basket over? He’d drown before anyone could get to him, even his watchful sister on the bank.

How desperate do you have to be to set your child adrift this way, surrounded by so much danger?

Yes, this was risky. Moses was so much more adrift and helpless than we are. He was caught between certain death and a risky ride in a basket in the Nile. He was too young to realize his precarious position, but not too young to feel alone. We don’t know how long his journey was but he would certainly notice that there were no familiar faces around him, no loving arms to hold him.

Of course, he was not totally alone. His sister was indeed watching from the shore. There wouldn’t be much she could do about a crocodile, but if he started to sink, she could have fished him out and if he flipped she sure would have tried to rescue him in time. She watched over him as best she could.

And look how it turned out. Pharaoh’s daughter immediately figured out that this was a Hebrew child and she took pity on him. She wasn’t dumb; she knew she was protecting this baby in defiance of her father and she was certainly experienced enough in palace intrigues to know that when a floating Hebrew baby shows up and a little Hebrew girl is mysteriously and conveniently right there, that this is no accident: it’s a plot.

She joins this very feminine conspiracy without needing to be told about it. She even provides wages for Moses’ own mother to raise him at home until he’s old enough to join her at the palace as her adopted son.

Numerically, this wasn’t a big deal. One baby saved out of a generational slaughter is hardly a solution to the crisis, but these women did what they could, which was to save one child.

And look what God was able to do with that child!

The Hebrew scriptures are very clear in their historical understanding that women were rarely in power. They had to find ways to work outside the official system to resist abuses of power.

This story gives us multiple examples:

Even before Moses’ family and Pharaoh’s daughter got involved we see the Hebrew midwives providing passive resistance. They wouldn’t obey Pharaoh’s orders, but they couldn’t defy him openly or they’d be killed. So they got creative and cooked up a story about Hebrew women giving birth remarkably quickly out in the fields.

Pharaoh probably got really squirmy when he heard that sort of detail and didn’t want to ask about those “women’s issues.” He might have suspected something, but he was reluctant to push it.

In other scriptures we have example after example of women using unconventional means to create justice where justice was denied, or to protect people who were otherwise helpless (sometimes that was themselves).

They broke small rules to protect big principles, while the men in power got hung up on the small rules and often missed the very important issues that were really at the heart of the matter.

Matthew saw this as important enough that he put several of those women into his Genealogy for Jesus’ family tree. And he included last week’s story about the woman nagging Jesus and his disciples into recognizing the justice of providing healing across barriers of creed, nationality and race.

Matthew didn’t include any of the women from today’s story in that list, but he didn’t have to. This event was so well known to his readers, so foundational to the story of the nation of Israel that no one could forget it.

These Hebrew and Egyptian women got together to defy a king who was prepared to drown babies; to enact a policy of genocide, effectively because he planned that the Hebrew women, with no Hebrew men, would be taken by the Egyptian men and would be assimilated. Their language and society would be destroyed and the perceived threat to his land would be eliminated.

This is an age-old injustice; one we still see rearing its ugly head today. We can learn something from the fact that this founding nation of our faith got its freedom through a man saved by a clever conspiracy of women, working underground to thwart the king.

We are reminded over and over in the Hebrew scriptures that as important as The Law is, laws themselves can be vehicles of injustice:

so we have to be prepared to work around them, cleverly, carefully, especially when we face risks; to find creative ways to do what God has shown us to be right.

And what is the message we get when we feel like little Moses: adrift and helpless? It is that we are not really alone no matter how it may seem.

And we can remember that God has ways to change a situation that we can’t even imagine and that can involve us, if we are open to God’s guidance and prompting. Little faithful actions, risks taken just to save one person can have unexpected outcomes as God works in the background of our lives.

Moses never could have imagined becoming a leader to his people; he even resisted it, but in the end he saw the wisdom of God’s plan and went along with it.

He had help every step of the way; he couldn’t have done it alone. With that help, he became a leader, remembered and revered down through the centuries in three world religions. Not a bad outcome for someone who started off adrift and helpless.

I wonder what God has in store for us? What small acts of kindness, acts of justice we can do, to make a difference, even if only for one person?

I wonder how all that will turn out? Let’s keep our minds and hearts open to find out.


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