Is there a story behind your name? How many of you were named after a relative or after a famous person? (responses) Did any of you receive a name that had to do with the circumstances of your birth — perhaps after a saint, or, as in today’s Bible story, because of something that happened on the day you were named? (responses)
Some cultures practice this frequently, giving a name that means something unique and special about the child — either something that happened to the parent, or something that made the child stand out, in their looks or personality.. Such names express a belief or a hope for that infant. Such names are common in Bible stories. Some names have a positive connotation, like Asher, which means “happy,” or Hannah, which means “favor” or “grace.” Other names have a more difficult meaning, like Amos, which means “load” or “burden,” or even worse, Lo-Ruhamah, the daughter of Gomer, the adulterous wife of the prophet Hosea, who was instructed to name that baby girl “not loved.”
Moses’ name is, perhaps, one of those challenging, mixed-significance names. It is actually more tricky than most biblical names, and many scholars consider the explanation in Exodus 2:11 to be an “invented etymology.” The scripture says the name is a form of the Hebrew verb meaning “to draw out” — i.e. of the water. But the name is given him by the Pharoah’s daughter, and Moses sounds very much like the word for “son” in Egyptian. Adding further complication to these matters, there’s another possibility in a Hebrew word that means “deliver.” So is Moses named as a son for a childless woman, drawn out from the water in a dramatic rescue, or delivered in order to become a deliverer? Perhaps he is all three. Perhaps, as the tale of his life unfolds, and as his calling is revealed, the reader is invited to choose just how closely his name — and his dramatic infancy story — lines up with his destiny.
Okay, I’m shifting gears somewhat here … listening to this tale, have you ever thought, “if it weren’t for that mean old Pharoah…”
… Then the Hebrew people would not have been enslaved.
… Then all the baby Hebrew boys would not have been killed.
…. And little Moses would not have been endangered, forced into the crocodile-infested Nile River protected only by a woven basket.
Have you ever read the story this way?
Or have you ever thought: “if it hadn’t been for that old so-and-so, my life would have been so much easier, or better…”
It may be you would fill in the blank with the name of a bully, or someone who drained your energies or resources. Or perhaps you would fill in the blank with the name of a person in power over you in a broader way, not only making you miserable, but others, as well — like a teacher, a boss, or (dare I say it?) a governmental leader.
“If it weren’t for ‘x,’ my life would have been easier or better.”
How often do you hear, or tell yourself, stories like these, when looking back at the past? As a pastor, I’m afraid I hear a lot of them.
And the Bible does contain stories like these, of people who suffered at the hands of others — bullies or powerful people that could be labelled as “evil.”
On the other hand, most of these same stories include other names of influencers — persons without whom life would have turned out far worse for God’s people. People who were faithful in spite of the “nasty old so-and-so’s,” people who (sometimes reluctantly) responded to the call to rise above the current difficult circumstances, who were brave and compassionate and bold.
Look at these people in Moses’ story: if it had not been for his mother, Jochebed, and her determination to keep baby Moses hidden for three months, he would likely not have survived his time in the woven boat on the Nile. If it had not been for his clever sister, Miriam, he would not have been reunited with his mother and raised on her milk and her songs and the awareness of who he was. If it had not been for the Pharoah’s daughter (who may well have conspired with the Hebrew woman and her daughter, we don’t really know), and her compassion for the child (and even before that, for her desire for a little one in her life — and again we do not really know the details as the Bible doesn’t tell us the backstory, although other, later storytellers have speculated as to whether some form of grief or loss was behind the Pharoah’s daughter’s compassion) — if it had not been for her, this woman with at least some power to protect the child, Moses would not have survived infancy.
All these circumstances, and all these people, came together to save this child. And all their influences came together to make him the perfect choice as a liberator: a man situated in (at least) two worlds, knowledgeable of (at least) two cultures and two languages.
At the mission luncheon at our recent Annual Conference, the head of the General Board of Global Ministries, Thomas Kemper (pictured here with Jim, missionary Katherine Parker, and myself) shared with us a quote about bi-racial, bi-cultural people and their unique ability to help the societies of which they are a part navigate change. He told us the inspiring story of John Stewart, a dark-skinned man of African, Indian and European descent, who started the first Methodist mission to native peoples in the U.S., working among the Wyandot people of Sandusky, Ohio, in a way that was respectful and cooperative — an approach that was very different from much of the history of mission work with natives in the U.S. From his story, one would guess that his experience with racism and personal suffering gave him a unique perspective and a unique gifting for the work to which he felt called by God.
There are additional dynamics in this Moses story that might be lost on us on the first reading. I mentioned the possibility of collusion between the Pharoah’s daughter with Moses’ mother and sister — but even if that was not the case, I think there is more than coincidence involved in this story. I think that Moses’ mother knew darned well where the royal family did their bathing and when, and that she chose this very spot, because it was the safest place to leave her child. I think she did her very best to set things in motion so her child would not perish. That she came out of this crisis, not only with her child alive, but at her side for three more years, and that she got paid out of the royal treasury for it, to boot — well, that sounds like a pretty clever victory for the underdog, and a story that would be told and retold with much relish.
Perhaps you recall the popular PBS series Downton Abbey, which highlighted stories both of the aristocratic Crawley family and those of the servants who worked on their spawling country estate. There were times, over the 12-year timespan covered in the period fictional drama, when something scandalous would occur, and the servants quickly knew all about it, although out of loyalty to their employers, they would keep their mouths shut. As titillating as this may be for television, I think a similar dynamic is played out repeatedly in a world where the working class go virtually unseen by those with privilege; we train ourselves “not to see” the homeless, or the migrant, or anyone deemed “lesser” or “other.” (Do you see the little dash of blue on the rigth side of this painting? That’s a witness running away!) Moses thought his murderous act, however he justified it, would go unnoticed — and he’s taken aback by how quickly he is found out. Nothing escapes the notice of the “underclass” in this story, and they are the ones who are clever (show Exodus 3:22) enough to give their oppressors their comeuppance, in more than one instance (I invite you to read the whole book to find more of these details!). The Exodus is an entertaining example of history told from the perspective of the “winners.”
But it’s also more (show Exodus 2:25) than that. For it’s not just the oppressed who overcome, with the help and leading of a bi-cultural “savior;” it’s the victory of a God who sees, who hears the plight of the suffering, who weaves out of the varied experiences of this Moses — born a Hebrew slave, raised and educated by Egyptians, stirred to champion the cause of those denied justice, even trained by his years of shepherding in the desert climate of Midian — who creates out of these experiences a person who is uniquely fitted for the task to which he will be called (and we’ll get to that call story next Sunday).
There is an exercise from the tradition of Saint Ignatius (to which I have referred before from this pulpit) called “graced history.” It is a practice of looking back over your life and asking God to call to your mind the instances in which God intervened. It is not just looking for God’s presence in the “good times,” but finding God in the challenging times, as One who gave “consolation,” but also as One who accompanied in times of “desolation,” who might take the broken pieces, the disappointments, the bullies and “old so-and-so’s” and turn them all into grace. It is looking for the others God sent to come alongside and call the best out of us, and giving thanks and appreciation, even in the most difficult of circumstances.
My questions for you this morning are these:
First, who is someone for whom if it hadn’t been for them, you wouldn’t be where you are today? There may be obvious candidates for that gratitude: parents, teachers, mentors, partners, friends. Might you say a prayer of thanksgiving for their role in your life? Might you go one better by composing a note of thanks, even if they are no longer living or if they are no longer in your life?
Secondly, whom are you failing to notice? Whose story is not being told, or whose story are you not choosing to hear because it doesn’t match up with your worldview or your position of comfort or power, or because it is uncomfortable or inconvenient? Might you make an effort to learn more about the people who serve in the background or who live in the unnoticed corners of our own community?
Our stories are important. The stories we tell ourselves have great power to shape our faith and to shape our future. We can wallow in stories of blame and suffering, of “old so-and-so’s” to whom we surrender our power to change, grow, or overcome adversity. Or we can look for the heroes, and nurture the power of gratitude to bring transformation to ourselves and to the world. In so doing, we might hear a call . We might discover where we have been drawn out — for a purpose. Amen.