October 8, 2017
Church of Peace, UCC
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
The Work of Her Hands
(fourth in the series Choosing Family)
Today we’re continuing the fall series called Choosing Family by hearing the story of baby Moses and the women who saved him. You’ll notice that Moses has an origin story befitting any super hero. It occupies both realms of miraculous fantasy and darling folk story, and it sizzles with the sparkle of an illicit operation gone right.
Pharaoh had ordered that all the baby boys born into Hebrew families must get drowned in the river. But Moses’ mother hid him away. For three months! When that was no longer feasible, his mother, Jochebed, and his sister, Miriam, hatch a plan. They will put Moses in a basket in the river right in the spot where Pharaoh’s daughter comes to bathe. Surely someone from the palace will find him. Surely someone will take one look at this baby and be smitten. And their rescue operation worked.
When Pharaoh’s daughter retrieves the baby from the basket in the water, Miriam doesn’t miss a beat. She comes out from her hiding spot and walks right up to the princess: “Would you like me to find you a Hebrew woman to nurse the baby?” Um, yes? Yes. Off Miriam runs to find her mom.
So this is the story of how a mother who gave up her baby in the afternoon still got to snuggle him to sleep that night. She gave up her baby, and she still got to smell his head. And I wonder how this story sounds to parents who give up their babies, maybe to save their lives, then they don’t get to hold them in their arms on the same night.
I wonder how this story sounds to parents who save their babies’ lives —not by a water rescue operation one afternoon— but by all the things they do, all the time, things like: locking up the cleaning supplies, or securing the car seat, or washing their hands, or checking one more time to make sure the baby’s still breathing while he sleeps… In this work so basic and constant, so tiny and tender, we human people are always saving each other.
The story of baby Moses got into the Bible so we can understand why Moses turned out to be such an influential leader. This story is similar to the legend of baby Sargon of the Akkad Empire; it’s a classic origin story, adapted to prove why Moses became a hero. So it makes sense that the story does not include much information about Moses’s mom, but I wish it did.
What we know is that Jochebed was a Levite woman who married a Levite man. When Moses was born, she saw that he was a fine baby. (Which is kind of a strange detail to mention, but okay.) The Bible tells us she hid him for three months, but it doesn’t say a word about what that was like. Did she have to muffle his crying when he had colic? Did she ever have to carry him to the water nestled under laundry? Did she worry the neighbors were starting to suspect something? Or were they in on it too, breaking the law by not turning her in…
The next thing the Bible tells us is that she made a little ark for him. With her own hands, Jochebed plastered the sides with bitumen and pitch. (Sargon of the Akkad Empire’s mother did the same thing, but her basket was made of rushes and tar.) Jochebed wrapped Moses in a blanket, put the baby in the basket, then went to the river with Miriam hoping to catch the princess before her bath.
I’d like to think Jochebed reached into the basket and tickled his toes so the last look she’d get, she would see her baby laughing, but the Bible doesn’t say anything about that.
It seems like Jochebed was supposed to stay with Miriam to find out whether the princess ever shows up, but she doesn’t stay. With her own hands, she puts her baby in the river. For a minute, the basket just wobbles there in the reeds. Then she thinks she hears him crying, and that does her in. Jochebed flees the scene, because what has she done! How can she possibly go on living…
There is something that happens to parents when they hold their newborn children. They might not mean for this to happen —it just does. A holy power wells up inside their being, so that when they look at this baby in their arms, they hear themselves promise: “I will never let anyone or anything ever hurt you. God help me.” It’s what parents whisper to their sleeping children. You know it’s what Jochebed told Moses all that time she was hiding him.
It makes me think of the extraordinary poem by Naomi Shihab Nye called Shoulders. Which is the right poem to hear when remembering Jochebed. It’s also the right poem to hear after the massacre in Las Vegas. She writes this:
And so it is that we human people hear ourselves make a promise to protect each other. Parents say this to their children, and we mean it with our lives. Then time and again, this promise slips through our fingers and shatters on the floor. Still children get hurt on the playground. Kids get taken from home by Child Protective Services. They get hit by cars, and bitten by dogs, and bullied on the bus, and diagnosed with disease. And talk to any of these parents, I dare you, they’re desperate to patch this promise back together with their hands. “Just let me hold him, please. I need to hold him.”
This is when a new promise is needed.
Now I know parents will always hold their sleeping children and swear to protect them, thank God. I also know there will be the day when this promise will come unplastered in the river; even the best parents will fail. But then what?
Could it be that God knows what it is to fail to save your own child, and could it be that this where forgiveness pours in and turns the story…
But look, I know how this sounds. A parent’s promise to protect their child sparkles with power. A promise to forgive, a promise to be forgiven, this doesn’t have the same sizzle. There could be, say, an entire episode of The Blacklist that features the hero promising to protect her baby, then we see forty-one minutes of action where the baby gets handed off from villain to hero to villain to hero…
It would not be the same to watch a parent hold his newborn baby and say, “Look, baby. I want to protect you. In some way, on some day, I’ll probably fail at this. Then I promise to show you what it looks like to receive forgiveness.” I mean, could you imagine a dad saying that? I can. It would be amazing! It would not be an episode of The Blacklist. It would be so much better.
The truth is parents keep this promise of protection day in and day out. It’s not always a frightening riverside rescue, but sometimes it is. More often, it’s things like making sure there are no peanuts in the cookies, or that the baby gate is secure at the top of the stairs. Day in and day out, we are always saving each others lives. What I’m wondering is whether forgiveness might work the same way.
Sometimes I hear people say the problem with forgiveness is that it’s impossible. We expect it to be a feeling in our hearts that just isn’t there. We’d like it to be a single sparkling event with optics matching the horror of the tragedy. But it is likely that we will never see a news story about a man sitting in a hotel room forgiving fifty-nine people.
Forgiveness does not match up and answer horror with the sparkle of heroics. It doesn’t have to. Forgiving yourself is work that is basic and constant, tiny and tender. And I really believe, it is the only way our world has a chance.
So when it seems impossible to feel any kind of forgiveness, there’s another way in. Try playing a song on the piano. Or making a basket. Or a loaf of bread. Write somebody a thank you note, then just see whether something has moved in your heart. With your own hands, go plant something in the dirt, or fix something that’s broken. I am not saying that by plunging a toilet you will feel differently about evil in the world, but there is something about plunging a toilet that shows us our own luminous forgiveness.
So it seems like the happy ending in our story is when Miriam goes to get Jochebed. She finds her mom crumbled in a ball on the ground not sure how to keep living. “Come on! You have to get up. The princess picked him up. She’s looking for someone to nurse him. We have to go.”
On this day, Jochebed gets to hold her baby again, but you know she will give up her son again, and again, and again. Later he grows up and kills a man, and Jochebed can’t protect him then. Later he goes on to lead the Israelites and meet the LORD our God on Mount Sinai. Jochebed can’t protect him then.
There is something better. More than protecting each other, we can learn to let ourselves be forgiven. We can listen for the hum of the dream inside each other and hold that life in our own hands. And see, we are always saving each other’s lives —saving each other’s dreams. Amen.
 Matthews, Victor H. and Don C. Benjamin. Old Testament Parallels: Laws and Stories from the Ancient Near East. Paulist Press, New York. 1997. page 85.
 My thanks to Rev. Leah Robberts-Mosser for introducing me to this poem.