“Blue is Beautiful”
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
October 18, 2015
University Baptist Church
Blue has been my favorite color for years. Maybe it’s the early gender based programming of clothing manufacturers. Maybe it’s because it matches my eyes. I think it has a lot to do with the joy I get from the cool comfort of a blue sky. Then there is the water. The big blue ocean, the lakes reflecting the color of the sky. Without fresh water and blue skies, we could not exist.
Yesterday, on the church retreat, we took a walk in the crisp autumn air. The conference grounds sit above a lake, guarded by a marsh. We saw turkeys, birds, and deer in the fields. They all wandered to the water, silhouettes against the blue horizon. We drank in the beauty of the day, the water reflecting the sky and said, in so many words, “Blue is beautiful.” What we also know is that what we sow in the upper rivers and lakes makes its way downstream. The Mississippi delta has a huge dead zone because of the pollutants in the runoff from our fields and factories. We need to keep the water blue and beautiful here so that it can be blue and beautiful down there.
We know when a flood happens, the landscape changes, the perspective changes. We will never think of New Orleans without remembering Katrina and what it exposed.
When Jesus started his public ministry, he did so by immersing himself in the Jordan River’s healing waters, the same waters which the Hebrew people crossed on their way to the Promised Land.
Today’s scripture tells of the beginning of one famous line of the Hebrew people. It starts in the blue water of the Nile River. The same people would cross the red sea on dry land, wander around in the desert until they reached the Jordan—the river barrier to the Promised Land.
Today, this blue-walled baptistery is filled awaiting an afternoon baptism from a neighboring congregation without a pool like this in their building. We are glad to extend this hospitality.
Today we are also joined by two dozen or so sisters from Phi Beta Chi sorority. There is some serious woman power in this room. So, today, as we recognize blue’s beauty, I want to recognize the women we were at the center of the story of Moses’ first boat ride. They were women who risked everything to save the life of Moses and the Hebrew people. They are not even given names in today’s scripture. But from other parts of the Bible and history we know them as Jochebed, Miriam and Merris.
Have you ever heard of these women before? They are some of the bravest people in the entire Bible and they all refused to settle for business as usual, when that business meant violence, murder, slavery and selfishness. Learn those names. Remember them. List them on the halls of heroes and heroines of the Bible. They are among the first voices of good news.
Moses was born a good 1300 years before Jesus. He was born under the reign of Rameses, Pharaoh of Egypt. Rameses, we know from the first chapter of Exodus, had forgotten what Joseph had done on behalf of all of Egypt by saving them from a famine. What Rameses did know was that he wanted slaves. He worried that as the Hebrew people grew more numerous, they would threaten the balance of power. So, ever hungry for control, he set taskmasters over them and forced them to build his cities. Exodus 1:14 says that Rameses “made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor.” They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed upon them. But when such ruthlessness meets with sheer volume of the oppressed, it eventually reaches a boiling point and soon revolution is in the air.
Pharaoh was afraid of a slave uprising. So, he imposed the first slaughter of the innocents. He declared that all of the female Hebrew babies should live, but all of the male Hebrew children must be thrown into the river and killed.
Exodus 1 speaks of how Egyptian Midwives Shiphrah and Puah committed civil disobedience by letting some boys live. If it had not been for these midwives, who were redemptively disobedient to the law to kill the male Hebrew babies, Moses would not have lived more than a few hours. If it had not been for Moses’ mother and her accomplices, Moses would not have stayed alive. If it had not been for both his mothers, Moses would not have learned to become the person that he did. If it were not for his birth mother being willing to let go of him, not once, but twice, Moses would not have turned into the one to set free the oppressed Hebrew people.
This is a story about family and it is also a story about the liberation from slavery. God was active in Moses’ convincing Pharaoh to let the people go, but it was the women in his life that really got Moses ready for his future.
Moses’ biological parents were Amram and Jochebed. Possibly with the aid of Shiphrah and Puah, they hid their child from 3 months. But you know as well as I do that you cannot hide a newborn for very long. Their crying betrays them. And, I am sure, the neighbors wanted to know what they were going to name their new daughter. Jochebed could not reveal that she had borne a son for that would defy Pharaoh’s laws and she would have to pay the price, probably with her life.
So, she devised a plan. Her daughter Miriam must have been ten years old or so by then. Being a mischievous 10-year-old, it was common for her to spy on what was happening in and around the town. Miriam knew that Pharaoh’s daughter Merris bathed at the river every day. Perhaps she had seen something in Merris that made her believe that she would be kind to her little brother. Perhaps she saw Merris’ rebellious side, which was just looking for a way to defy her father’s short-sighted rules.
They hatched a plan to save the baby’s life. But there was a catch. The only way to save him was to give him away. Because Jochebed had the courage and the wisdom and the strength to give Moses to Merris, she and all of the Hebrew people received freedom from slavery. I think of biological mothers who have the guts to give their babies up for adoption in the hopes that they would have a better life.
Jochebed and Miriam conspired to create the first international adoption agency. They put the tiny baby in a basket on the river’s edge and floated it down the blue stream just at the time when Merris was bathing. Miriam waited in the bushes. Jochebed was not far away either.
When Merris heard the baby crying, she saw him in the reeds and she sent her attendants to go and get the child. The scripture says that she took pity on him. She knew that this was one of the Hebrew children. She knew that he was supposed to be killed, but somehow that was much easier to do when you did not have to look at the beautiful baby right in front of you. Reality often betrays theory. Maybe she looked into the blue water next to the baby’s boat and saw her own reflection beside the baby’s. maybe she saw her reflection in Moses’ newborn blue eyes. And something happened to her. Whether she was led by compassion or she was looking for a way to have some say in someone’s life, she made a decision to do something redemptive. She took the outlaw baby in her arms, all the while looking at the river and her reflection and she saw her life and his ahead of her.
And right on cue, the ever-precocious Miriam, who was possible the family peddler, jumped out of the bushes and said, “Princess, shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” Miriam was not only taking care of her little brother, she was also making sure that Merris made the decision to keep the child, and to have him eventually raised in Pharaoh’s home. This baby would be the Hebrew insider.
When Merris said, “yes,” then the plan was a success. Miriam brought her none other than Jochebed, her mother. Merris said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” Jochebed was among the first wage-earning working mothers. Get this: she was paid to be the mother of her own child—from the royal coffers, no less!
Now Moses, as he was later named by Merris, stayed with Jochebed, Miriam and the Hebrew people until he grew up. In those days that could have been anywhere from 7 to 12 years. They say that our personalities are set in place in our psyches during our first three to six years. Miriam was is sister and babysitter, almost like a second (or is it third) mom.
Moses learned the slave songs from his people and felt the desire for freedom through his mother Jochebed. Jochebed taught Moses his faith long before God spoke to him thorough the burning bush. Possibly more than anyone else in Moses’ life, Jochebed was central to making him the one who would lead the people out of slavery in Egypt. Because Jochebed had the strength to stand up to Pharaoh, she gave her son Moses the power to stand up to Pharaoh, too.
Merris taught him that there were holes in the mighty armor of Egypt. She showed him that one could find ways around the rules for the sake of love, devotion and mercy. And because Jochebed was able to give Moses up not once but twice, Moses was able to give up his desire to be a shepherd in Midian in order to set his people free.
Moses spent years in the mountains of Midian. But there was something burning in his bones that would not let him go. Jochebed and Merris, his two redemptively disobedient moms had instilled in him that core of truth in his life. They instilled in him a sense of love and nurturance that in his old age he felt compelled to revisit. Moses realized that he needed to help set his people free. It’s no accident that Miriam was by his side as they led the people to freedom. Tradition even says that Merris fled with Moses and the Hebrew people. Take that, Dad.
Jochebed, Miriam and Merris stand in a long line of people who stand at the water’s edge and wish a better life for their children.
These days, babies aren’t sent in baskets. Entire families make the journey across the blue water to another place on makeshift rafts, hoping for a safe place on the other side. Hoping, praying that someone would take them in, name them as worthy, defy the rules of the leaders and say that compassion is better than ethnic cleansing, better than war, better than hopelessness. Because there is something of God in the yearning for life and safety. And there is certainly something of God in the welcoming of a stranger, even a perceived enemy.
One hundred and seventy years ago, the Donley family fled the Irish potato famine. They got in rickety boats without much more than a prayer, and headed across the great blue Atlantic. They arrived in Ottawa with hoards of other immigrants and migrated down to Cleveland, Ohio where they put down roots. I don’t know who helped them, but someone did. Someone welcomed them ashore.
After church today, we’ll hear from representatives of Refugee services whose mission is to help people find homes across the rivers and oceans in the US. We have helped resettle four such families in the past 10 years or so. And each time we have done so, we have been blessed way more than we have blessed them.
Many of us have crossed the blue waters in order to start a new life. Maybe it’s an ocean and maybe it’s the river that’s less than two blocks away from here. Remember that the blue of the water reflects the vastness of the sky. And that is how vast God’s grace extends. Blue is beautiful.
As we enter into this new day, may we do so remembering the Jochebeds, Miriams and Merris’s of our lives: those who risked on behalf of us; those who crossed the water and took a chance on a new life. Remember those in our families who risked so much to make the crossing. And remember who took the risk in welcoming them.
Take some time in these next couple of days when it’s going to be 70 degrees. Go down to a lakeshore or a river. Look into the blue waters reflecting the sun. Look at your reflection and try to channel Jochebed, Miriam and Merris. You are here because they risked for you and they too looked into that beautiful blue water, saw your faces in theirs, prayed and wondered what you might do.
As you look at your reflection, what will you do? How will you join God in the liberation of God’s people? How will you preserve the fresh waters that give life? How will you see yourself as God sees you—full of potential, full f grace, full of power? For you are as beautiful as the blue water. And when you join your streams of hope with another’s, you can turn the tide toward freedom just like Jochebed, Miriam and Merris did.
The color blue is beautiful, but it’s also objectively neutral. The real beauty comes is what happens when we see our reflection and reclaim what God has created in us. May you behold, bathe, bless and become the new being that God has birthed you to be.