Sermons

First Frost

October 14, 2012

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

Reinhold Niebuhr often began his sermons by announcing that he was aware of “how many of you almost didn’t come this morning.” Let me start by thanking you for coming. Time is so precious, days are so packed, brunch and bed are both so compelling. I understand. Some part of you nudged another part of you and you showed up. Thank you. Niebuhr often continued by saying that since you have come, let me take you to a tender place. He wasn’t known for his tenderness, just the opposite. His name has become an adjective for toughness. If we want to say somebody has a tough-minded realism, we say he or she is “Neiburhian.” Forgive me, we’ll say, for going Neibuhrian on you but your innocence is driving me crazy.

Today I want to introduce you to Jochabed, the birth mother of Moses, who is tender and tough, also tough and tender. She is a person, who like many of us, is forced by Pharaoh to do the unthinkable. She knows that Pharaoh has put out an order to kill all the boy babies which all by itself is unthinkable. Mass murder of infants is hardly a nice policy, even for an imperialist. She keeps her child for three months, aware at every nursing that the milk going into him may be futile. She makes a tough decision to abandon her child in some faint hope that Pharaoh won’t be able to kill him. She goes to the River Nile. Her sister follows behind probably in a combination of horror and understanding. She sets her child in a basket she has made with her own hands, a basket made of bulrushes and pitch. She probably kisses him goodbye. She ever so slightly pushes him out into the river in a protected place. It is amazing how few of the many paintings of this horrible scene of abandonment active and being abandoned passive ever show the child crying. Maybe babies didn’t cry then? I don’t think so. The artists show the child in the basket, serene, covered, tightly bound, like one of those children in a snuggly, all wrapped up and held tight. But no parent is holding the one who becomes Moses. Only a basket and that basket is pushed away from the mother.

Did Jochabed not love Moses? How could she abandon her child to the river? Of course, she loved him and in that strange thing that happens to mothers and to fathers, she was obsessed with his safety. Like any mother she would do anything in her power to protect him. The problem was, she didn’t have any power. She was a Hebrew, and she was a woman, and she didn’t have any power. Pharaoh’s soldiers were coming to take her boy away from her and there was no way she could stop them from coming, no way she could prevent the knock at the door. Today I want to attend her powerlessness and how she turned it into power. I have often said that we can have whatever we can give away. In this mother’s nudge, slight push out and away, we find a downright Niebuhrian strategy for managing Pharaoh and managing ourselves. I want to talk about what we love with all the power we don’t have to love it.

But first note the trickery at the heart of the story. Her sister is standing by. Pharaoh’s daughter comes down to the Nile to bathe. She adopts Moses or declares that she will do so. Of course, she has no idea what that means. So the sister, the trickster here, enters the scene and asks whether Pharaoh’s daughter wants her to find a nurse for the baby. Did she have a strange grin on her face as she suggested her trick? Did her heart beat knowing she could save her nephew who had just been abandoned? And there it is. Escaping Pharaoh, we are saved by Pharaoh. Set free from Pharaoh’s murderous hands, we are picked up by his daughter’s largess. None of this would have happened without that brave, little push. Don’t miss that moment. It is the moment of liberation. We push away. We nudge ourselves. We get out of bed in the morning and not just to go to church. Perhaps it is an exercise program or a writing program or just a desire to enjoy a long coffee before we stop enjoying our day. The nudge and the push to get up or to act, even when it is an act driven by our knowledge that Pharaoh is chasing us, that nudge is the lever, the hinge of the story. You see, we surely need to escape Pharaoh but we also need to be saved by Pharaoh. Our powerlessness needs to impact Pharaoh’s power and change it towards us. Don’t you find it deeply ironic (yes one of Niebuhr’s great books is called “The Irony of American History” that Pharaoh’s daughter nurses the leader who led people out of Egypt? And then again, how else could it be any different? Don’t we need Pharaoh’s power to reverse Pharaoh’s multiple and multiplying messes?

Consider climate change. But first come to love the climate. Acknowledge how much you love that matter we call nature. Don’t go straight to Pharaoh. Stop first to nurse the baby. We just had the first frost of 2012 on Friday. It was a hoar frost, the glistening kind that makes everything a little bit green. Come to the tender place of that frost. Now we can also anticipate an ice storm and icicles and the intricacy of a snowflake or a bonfire’s spark. Of course the common thorn bush is still aflame as are the purple asters. The bees are deep in their hiving. We remember the bygone breezes of summer and note that someone is the lord of the freeze and the thaw. We hear the bickering flycatchers, watch the wild turkeys trundle in a line across the road. We hear the bickering flycatchers. We see the fog that came to the city on Thursday, announcing a big of a change in the meteorological moment. We think of quagmires, forgetting that they are like swamps, filled with their slime and muskrats. The furnace of creation shows up in the red and gold of the cinnabar, which reminds us of the taste of a good just right apple, which taste is as frail and fleeting as a moth. We note the color seeping into the trees, the brittle stems of the weeds that don’t stop. The jam is in the jars, and the galaxy doesn’t really care, even though some like to think that the first frost of 2012 is more important than usual. Moses mother, Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses’ mother’s sister, the baby…all these thought that their moment in time was utterly important as well. It was not. It was just another opportunity for a nudge, a push, and a change. First frost is as good a time as any to sit in some quiet place and to imagine that it is our own hand that is stretched out and determined to nudge what we love away from our anxiety and into the roaring current of God’s great plan. When I experience how much I love fall or frost, I realize I am dismayed about my powerlessness to stop global scorching or the terrible drought in the Midwest. I do observe that the states hardest hit are conservative places and I certainly hope God is not punishing them. Why am I so dismayed, so anxious, so worried about nature? Because I feel powerless to protect it. What may I do? I might get over my anxiety into the tenderness and push and nudge in small-determined ways. Of course I want Pharaoh’s power to restore the earth and sea and sky. Who else could do it?

Living with integrity demands a difficult step of detachment before a new attachment can be made. Release before re-engagement. Renunciation before renewal. Jochabed is the model for all of this. The deeper your love, the more difficult, the more terrible it is to contemplate that letting go, that final nudge out into the current. But it is also good – it is very, very good – for it is in that release, that surrender into the swift current of deeper faith, that we are finally made fully available for the work to which God has called us.

This Moses story looks cute and tender and kind of pink at first glimpse. But then we see that it is actually a very puzzling text. Escaping Pharaoh, one is saved by Pharaoh, and brought into his home. Don’t you also think it is odd that the women in Russia while trying to pick a fight with the state ended up picking one with the church? When we are truly powerless, we pick any fight we can. We drop our babies and we drop whatever we love the most. Again, let us attend those nudges, that push, that basket that pushes away and lets go of what we love. We appear to be able to have whatever we can let go of. It comes back to us changed, especially if our sister or brother is watching from the side to notice the opportunity. The women in Russia may not get eternal life but if anybody is going to have an effect on Putin, they are. We abandon our babies only to get them back.

What is Pharaoh? Pharaoh is the disruption of organic process. What Howard called living in the overlap? What the Railroads call living in the gap. When we disrupt our own process, by little nudges and pushes, we restore organic process. We take the next step, knowing that that is all there is.

A doctor friend of mine described how she got over her hatred of many patients in the emergency room where she worked. She could not stop blaming them for their own illness. Most who came in were drunk or in a fight because they were drunk. She realized her hatred was a form of personal protection. She was a doctor who used the word, GOMERS, get out of my emergency room way too often. She went to work in a hospital in California where truly hopeless patients were. She was helped mightily by the book, God’s Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the heart of medicine, Victoria Sweet, Riverhead, 2012 “Nothing else I can do for you.” Not true. You can give me friendship. She practices what she calls slow medicine. “The essence of hospitality – hospes – is that guest and host are identical, if not in the moment, then at some moment. Whatever our current role, it is temporary. With time and the seasons, a host goes traveling and becomes a guest: a guest returns home and becomes a host. That is what the word hospitality encodes. And in a hospital, the meaning of that interchangeability is even more profound, because in the hospital, every host will for sure become a guest; every doctor a patient. At Laguna Honda, where people go when no one else wants them. No other place to go. “

Her nudge for herself was like the nudge writers give. When we have received yet another letter of rejection, or realized that yet another editor didn’t respond to yet another proposal, many of us find ourselves writing ideas on the backs of envelopes. Those little ideas become our ability to manage the Nile. They keep us going. They nudge us out of bed on a Sunday morning and ask us to make a stop at the tenderness café. They seat us at the faith that stays after the rejection letter and relieve us of the terror of the empty page.

I wanted to use a certain hymn this morning, because it had the word drop in it. Drop. Nudge. Little push. It is usually called “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind,” but obviously we changed the first line in honor of Pharaoh’s daughter and Jochabed’s sister. “Drop Thy Still Dews of Quietness, Till All our Strivings Cease, Take from our souls the strain and stress and let our ordered lives confess the beauty of thy peace.” The BBC declared this old hymn number 2 in popularity; it has also appeared in more than one movie (The Atonement, Last Days of Disco) and in at least one musical, Jekyll and Hyde. It turned up in the Congregational Hymnbook, rewritten by Garrett Holder in 1884. Charles Ives also borrowed it for work of its own. Like Moses, the hymn had many parents. What intrigues me is that it was originally written by John Greenleaf Whittier, a Quaker Poet, in a longer poem, “The Brewing of Suma.” Now Suma was a drink from Vedic rituals, an intoxicant. The poem is really about drinking enough of this magical brew, way back when, that you could find yourself released. As much as my doctor friend doesn’t like drinking, I have to admit I like intoxications, along with many ancients. In moments when we are beside ourselves, we usually are more open to being nudged. Pushed. Dropped. There we drop thy still dews of quietness, till all our strivings cease. And that is the moment where tenderness becomes toughness. Where we are able to begin again. In the end and the push, the beginning and the pull happen.

When we are dropped, then we can be drawn out. What did Pharaoh’s daughter say about why she named him Moses? “I drew him out of the water,” that’s why. And she just didn’t draw him out of any water. She drew him from the Nile, the source of life for both the Hebrews and for Pharaoh. Sure, one lived on one side and the other on the other side. But their powerlessness and power meet in Moses.

In the little nudges and pushes – which are greeted by being oddly picked up and returned – we open a vein and let the blood flow out. We answer that great question of Annie Lamott, “How alive am I willing to be?” Tough and tender combine.

 
55 Washington Square South New York, NY 10012 | phone: 212-477-0351 | fax: 212-995-0844