What would you do?
Desperate mothers, hopeful lives

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A United Methodist pastor finds special resonance in the story of the baby Moses and a mother desperate to save his life.  So do we. 

I never gave much thought to the story of Moses’ mother, really, until the last few years.

The Reverend Briony Desotell of First United Methodist Church of Ypsilanti UMC, Ypsilanti, Michigan.
The Reverend Briony Desotell of First United Methodist Church of Ypsilanti, Michigan, whose church hosts a legal immigration clinic for Justice For Our Neighbors Southeastern Michigan. 

I always knew this story, of course. It’s one of those stories we tell our children early on, singing lullabies and coloring pictures in Sunday school, and I guess I can understand why: the story of a sweet, innocent little baby, floating along in a basket, escaping death, being plucked from the waters, and given a new chance at life. It’s the original Cinderella story – only in this case, it’s a little slave boy marked for death who catches the eye of the princess, a princess who is able to look beyond his outward appearance and station in life, falling in love with him against all odds. (Wait, that’s the plot to Aladdin. I knew it sounded familiar!)

The story has all the earmarks of a fairy tale, even the fairy tale ending – when the princess needs someone to help nurse and raise this unlikely little prince, she calls upon his own mother to do the job. Everything works out; everybody is happy; the orchestra swells and so do all our hearts.

It’s a sweet story, a familiar story.

It’s so sweet and so familiar that we can forget why this story happened at all.

Moses’ mother didn’t just wake up one day and think, Hey, if I play my cards right, my little boy could be a prince! No, the reason Moses ended up on that river – is because a scared and power-hungry ruler ordered all the Hebrew baby boys to be thrown into the river and drowned.

We can get so focused on Moses’ miraculous escape that we forget that he was born in the midst of horrific suffering and terrible grief – a genocide, a holocaust. Babies were dying; children were being taken from their mothers’ arms – the lullabies of Moses’ childhood were the wails and weeping of mothers who would not and could not be comforted.

Moses in the Bulrushes by Elizabeth Jane Gardner, 1878.
Moses in the Bulrushes by Elizabeth Jane Gardner, 1878.

When Moses’ mother – we learn in Numbers that her name was Jochebed – when Jochebed placed her baby on the river, she did so out of desperation and out of hope. She had done everything she could: she hid him for three months, she made him a boat out of bulrushes, as watertight as she could manage, and though she followed the letter of the law – she put him in the river – she did not follow the spirit of the law, hoping that, by putting him in the river with a basket boat to protect him, somehow, somehow God would bless her desperate efforts, God would hear her desperate prayers, God would make a way for her little boy to be saved.

Some commentators call her a radical, a woman whose act of nonviolent civil disobedience would lead, in the future, to the liberation of a whole people. And certainly, we can read that story here: we can be reminded that one person, acting in faith – even desperate and uncertain faith, even grieving and weeping every step, even if she has no idea where that one act may lead – one person, acting in faith, can change the world for countless generations yet to come.

We can call Jochebed a radical, a reformer, a dreamer and a visionary. We can write songs and turn her into a folk hero and praise her tenacious faith.

But I honestly don’t think her sights were set that high. Jochebed was a mother; she was a mother who wanted, more than anything, to save her son.

And that – that, I understand.

I also had a son. When my son was diagnosed with leukemia, the doctors brought in piles and piles of paper, reams of paper, listing the risks and side effects of the medication they wanted to pump into his tiny veins. And the lists were horrific, and the idea was terrifying. But we also knew – if we didn’t do anything, then our baby was going to die. So we signed on the dotted line, and I felt, in those days, a glimmer of what Jochebed must have felt when she kissed her little boy’s forehead, cradled his cheek, placed him in a bulrush boat, said a prayer – and let him go.

Photo courtesy of www.globalsolutionspgh.org
Photo courtesy of www.globalsolutionspgh.org

Jochebed was desperate. And when you are desperate, you are willing to risk everything in order to save the people you love. She put her baby in that boat because it was her only chance – it was his only chance. She knew, though it broke her heart, though there was no certainty or reassurance that her plan would work – she knew that the only chance she had of saving him was to lay him down and let him go.

Jochebed’s desperate hope was fulfilled. Her prayers were answered. Mine weren’t; nine months after our son was diagnosed, I kissed his forehead and let him go again. I take comfort in knowing that we did everything we could to save him; I take comfort in knowing that though his life was short, he lived well, and he never doubted that he was loved. And I will continue not only to pray but to raise awareness and advocate for research and medical care so that no mother ever has to know the grief that I do.

The truth is, the world is full of Jochebeds today: desperate mothers, making desperate decisions, risking everything so our children might live.

Just a few of weeks ago, the world was shaken by the image of a little boy, dressed in a red tee shirt, blue shorts, and Velcro sneakers – found face-down on a beach in Turkey. His name was Aylan, and he was three years old. And his parents, desperate to secure for him a better life – desperate to escape Syria, where they had been living in an area that had suffered hundreds of airstrikes – his mother and father loaded little Aylan and his older brother, five year old Galip, into a boat and set out on the waves. There are different stories, depending who you ask: that the family had applied to migrate to Canada, where the boys’ aunt lives and works, but their application was denied, or perhaps that there was no application at all. I don’t know the details. I do know that this mother looked around her, and she knew it was only a matter of time before her family was destroyed by the turmoil and the violence around them – so she, like Jochebed, took a chance; she, like Jochebed, dressed her baby with care, and placed him in a leaky and uncertain vessel, and hoped they might find their way over the waves to new life.

But unlike Jochebed, the story has a tragic ending. The boat capsized. Aylan drowned. His brother drowned. Their mother drowned. Only their father survived, to be choked and haunted by his grief.

It’s a terrible story… but what’s most terrible about it is that it is not unique. It is a story that is repeated again and again around the world today: parents, desperate for hope, desperate to secure a future for their children, are faced with impossible decisions, and take impossible chances, hoping that their prayers will be answered, that they will find a way to the other side.

Unaccompanied Minors–Central American teenagers– follow the train tracks in Mexico to safety in the United States. Photo courtesy AP.
Unaccompanied Minors–Central American teenagers– follow the train tracks in Mexico to safety in the United States. Photo courtesy AP.

And for many of us, it’s so easy to sit in judgment. We judge poor mothers for wasting their money on fast food, not realizing these mothers are doing the best they can to feed their children and bring a little joy in desperate lives. We judge immigrants for not going through the proper legal channels…neglecting to recognize that the proper legal channels are so politically charged and lined with red tape that it’s a long and nearly impossible process to get through, especially when the need to find a new home is pressing right now, today. We judge refugees for taking dangerous risks, putting their children’s lives in danger – not acknowledging that no one pays their life’s savings and loads their loved ones into a leaky boat or a cargo container unless whatever it is they’re fleeing is much, much worse.

We have gotten too comfortable. We have become like the Egyptians: tuning out the wailing, looking away from the tears, privately thanking God that our children, at least, are safe.

We have forgotten what it means to be desperate. And so we have forgotten what it means to lay down our lives, to sacrifice ourselves, to risk everything – for the sake of hope, for the chance of new and renewed life on the other side.

How far would you go, to save your child’s life? We would sacrifice everything, wouldn’t we? We would sell it all, give it all up, lay it all down – even our own lives – for our children’s sakes.

God asks, what if it’s not your child? Would you still love the same?

A young Syrian refugee
A young Syrian refugee

How far would you go to save your neighbor’s child? A stranger? A foreigner? A Muslim? An atheist? An Afghani? A Mexican? A Syrian? Would you still make sacrifices? Would you still care? – or would it be too easy, too easy, to close your eyes and look the other way?

The story of the Hebrew people in Egypt and their suffering under a frightened and powerful ruler reminds us that fear and love cannot coexist; one will always drive the other out. We come face to face with just how powerful and devastating fear and greed and complacency can be… and we are challenged to place ourselves instead on the side of hope, on the side of compassion, on the side of love.

The message rings as true today. Too often, rather than making sacrifices, we allow others’ hopes, others’ dreams, others’ lives to be sacrificed on the altar of our own fear and greed. We think: not my problem. We protest: not in my backyard. Again and again, we choose our own comfort, our own convenience, our own sense of security – over the demands of the gospel, over the call to follow God and imitate Christ in radical, self-sacrificing, impossible-hope-sustaining love.

The Conversion on the Way to Damascus by Caravaggio, circa 1600-1601
The Conversion on the Way to Damascus by Caravaggio, circa 1600,

Some of you may remember how the Apostle Paul – then called Saul – was on the road to Damascus when he was blinded by Christ, when he was knocked on his backside, when he suddenly realized that his life was being wasted, that he was so caught up in anger and hatred and self-preservation, that he had neglected the God he professed to love. He was led into the city, where the scales fell away from his eyes – and if he had known John Newton’s famous words, he may have broken into song: I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.

Paul went from being the consummate insider, a man whose whole life was dedicated to preserving boundaries, to taking care of “us” and destroying “them” – Paul became the great missionary to the outsiders and the outcasts, forever getting into trouble for crossing boundaries and proclaiming love and hope to all people, everywhere. And it all started in Damascus. It all started in Syria.

And as the world turns its attention to Syria, I cannot help but wonder: what will it take for the scales to fall from our eyes today? What will it take for us to realize that the gospel is not just for us, for our families, for our own children – but God’s love, God’s grace, God’s healing and hope are for all people, everywhere? – especially, especially for those who live in desperation, who need compassion and hope the most.

We cannot call ourselves followers of Christ, if the story of Aylan does not break our hearts.

And we cannot call ourselves God’s people, if we remember Moses, but ignore all the Jochebeds faced with impossible decisions still today.

Moses’ mother made an impossible decision, to place her heart in a bulrush basket on the waters. And her prayers were answered – because her enemy, a princess in Pharaoh’s house, heard his cries; she saw that baby, and she was moved to love him, to draw him out of those waters, out of harm’s way, and to give him life.

May we have the courage, like Jochebed, to place our trust in God’s hands. May we still believe that, even in the darkest and hopeless of moments, we still worship a God who makes a way where there seems to be no way, a God who brings life, even in the midst of death.

But friends, may we also have the courage, like that Egyptian princess, to look beyond ourselves – to see the suffering around us, to hear the cries of those who are perishing – and to do what we can to draw them out and lift them up.

May we love, not only our own children, but all the children of God, and may we do what we can to work for a better future, not just for our sake, but for the sake of God’s great and cosmic story of healing, love, and hope.

 “Hopeful” * Pastor Bri Desotell  * Exodus 2:1-10 * Preached September 27, 2015    Ypsilanti First United Methodist Church

 Edilnelson's mother was desperate to get her son out of Guatemala, so desperate she was willing to be separated from him forever. He left her behind when he fled to the United States. Thanks to the efforts of Justice for Our Neighbors Iowa, he now lives safely with an older brother in Iowa.

Just like Jochebed, the mother of Moses, Edinelson’s mother was desperate. She had to get her son out of Guatemala, even if it meant she would never see him again. He left her behind when he fled north.
Thanks to the efforts of Justice for Our Neighbors Iowa, he has found the safe haven that gives meaning to his mother’s sacrifice.   
There are hundreds of boys and girls, men and women, like Edinelson. They come from all over the world. They live in fear and they live in hope.
If we don’t help them, who will? 

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