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Sermon for 10th Sunday after Pentecost, “Sunday School Stories: Moses, Part I“

Sermon 8/21/11
Exodus 1:8-2:10

Sunday School Stories: Moses, Part I

            One time when I was visiting our friend and member Walt Jenkins, who is always reading something, he had a book on his coffee table that really caught my interest. I can’t remember the title, but I remember the concept. In each chapter, a different author looked at events in United States history and imagined what would have happened if one small variable had been different. For example, what if Paul Revere had not been able to complete his famous ride in time to warn colonials of the approaching British troops? What if he had been captured or injured or his horse broke a leg? Perhaps we can conjecture that a quick replacement would have been made. But it is only conjecture. We have no idea how one event might have impacted everything else. Or what if Lee Harvey Oswald had missed and failed to assassinate JFK? What if JFK had completed his presidency? Certainly the course of US history would be different – but how?
You’ve probably heard of this, even if not by this name: the Butterfly Effect. The butterfly effect gets its name from the basic example: the presence or absence of a butterfly flapping its wings in a certain time and place can impact the presence or absence of weather systems as large as hurricanes across the world. The actual concept is slightly more complicated. Reading about it will take you into a world of math formulas and graphs. But we can grasp the basic idea, I think, and think about our own lives. Sometimes the examples are much more trivial than presidential assassinations. Think about your own life. You probably consider this when you narrowly avoid an auto accident and realize that if you had traveled one mile per hour faster or slower, your life might be totally different. Think about the choices you’ve made, and the consequences your choices have, intended and unintended. What if you chose to take a different class in college and you never met your spouse? What if you never lost touch with that friend from grade school? Or what if you had taken a different summer job when you were in high school? What if you'd put on a different outfit this morning? What if you hadn’t lost your keys and left the house five minutes earlier? What if you weren’t here today, but out at breakfast? We cannot even know what impact our decisions might be having. We cannot even imagine.
Reading today's Old Testament lesson, where we turn our focus from Moses to Joseph, I am overwhelmed with questions of this type. What if? What if? So, let’s look at what we have. ʺNow a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.ʺ That’s how our passage from Exodus begins today, and it explains how Joseph's actions with his brothers, where he lets them essentially work for food in Egypt, turns into Israelite slavery under Egyptians just a few generations later. What if, indeed? How could Joseph and his brothers imagine that their sibling rivalry would be the groundwork for a whole nation being slaves to another, which would lead to the Exodus, which remains today the most significant story shaping Jewish identity. Perhaps it will give you pause next time you are arguing with a loved one – who knows how your actions will shape the world!
Times have changed and Joseph and family are no longer special guests in Egypt. They’re slaves. More than that, the new king, the new Pharaoh, feels threatened by the number of Israelites. They have multiplied over time and now are more numerous than the Egyptians. So the Israelites become slaves forced into worsening conditions. Pharaoh also directs the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, to kill any male children born to Israelite women. (Lynn, apparently only two midwives were needed to assist with an entire nation of newborns.) But Shiphrah and Puah have their own plan. They deliver babies as usual, and tell Pharaoh that Israelite women are just exceptionally vigorous in labor and deliver and they can’t get there fast enough. Pharaoh is not so easily thwarted though, and he orders every baby boy born simply thrown into the Nile.
We read about a Levite woman, one of the tribes of Israel, who has a baby boy and sees how beautiful he is, and she decides to hide him. When that becomes too risky, she prepares a basket for him and puts him in among the reeds on the banks of the river. The baby’s sister, Miriam, watches to see what happens. Indeed, we don’t know what his mother Jochebed was hoping would happen – but she has to hope for something. Who comes to the river, but the Pharaoh's daughter! When she sees the baby, she has pity on him, even knowing it is probably one of the Hebrew babies, even knowing her actions are about to violate her own father’s law.  The baby’s sister, Miriam, offers to run and find a nurse, and of course, she brings back his own mother. The Pharaoh's daughter hires her to be the nurse, but he is raised as the child of the Pharaoh's daughter. And she names him Moses.
What a strange turn of events! Of course, we know that it is Moses, this baby, who becomes the man who leads the Israelites out of Egypt to freedom, who will eventually go head to head with Pharaoh. So if Pharaoh had never ordered babies killed, in order to oppress and control the Israelites, Moses would never have been raised by his daughter and in a position to lead people to freedom. All through this story, these women take action – maybe small actions – but they add up to the unfolding of one of the most important stories in the Old Testament. Shiphrah and Puah pretend Israelite women give birth really quickly. Jochebed sees what happens if she trusts God and floats her baby in the Nile. Pharaoh's daughter doesn’t let her royal status keep her from pity and compassion. Even Miriam knows just what to do when an opportunity presents itself. They probably are all a little afraid. And probably none of them could imagine the grand consequences of their actions. But without every piece, who knows what would have transpired?
God calls us and waits for us to respond. Every day, all the time, in a million situations. God creates us, and sets us loose in the world, and gives us hearts, souls, minds, lives that we can make of what we will. Sometimes we feel so small in this world, but in reality, we have incredible power because of the gift of freewill God gives to us. And so when we act, when we react, when we speak, when we decide, when we refuse to act – each choice we make has an impact – whether we see it immediately or never truly understand how the years ahead are shaped by a small decision today. That means we should carefully consider what we are about. Our lives aren’t trivial, but full of meaning that God draws out from us. When we speak and act in anger, out of hate, it matters. When we act with compassion, it matters. When we are kind, it matters. When we hurt one another, it matters. When we don’t act, and don’t care, it matters. When we make one small contribution for peace and justice, it matters. When we act with love, it matters. It all counts.
Every day we make a million choices. You’ve already made a million to bring you to this very place this morning. And maybe we can’t know whether taking one route or another home today will change history. But we can think long and hard about how the small choices we make can lead to big things, and how the small steps we take, can bring us ever closer to God. Amen.


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