What if?


Exodus 1: 8 –Exodus 2: 10


What if I were to tell you that what you do this week could change the world?  Would you believe me?

What if I were to tell you . . . that what you do today will change the world?  Would you think I was nuts?

Who has the kind of influence that really changes the world?  A few people, a tiny percentage of humankind? In the words of playwright Thornton Wilder, only some people ever really understand the nature of life – the poets and the saints, maybe, but the rest of us, Wilder says, muddle through, living little existences, oblivious to our potential. I don’t know about you, but I’ll go home, throw on some old clothes, mow the grass, fix dinner, read and go to bed.  Hardly world-changing stuff.

But, on the other hand, whatever we do & wherever we go, we leave our mark.  I’m fascinated by the ability of forensic scientists to find a single strand of hair in a brush, dead skin cells on the car seat, the impression of a shoe in deep pile carpet, a tiny drop of saliva on the rim of a glass.  On the micro level, our bodies never leave a chair, a room, or a building without changing it, without altering the ecosystem of a space in some tiny but perceptible way.  We alter the air quality, increase the heat, leave our fingerprints on the steering wheel, and DNA on the toothbrush.

The same is even more true on the macro level.  We bring into an office or hospital room an energy, a facial expression, a mannerism, or a word that alters that space.  And these are usually the unintentional byproducts of our being here.  The intentional words and actions can speak even more profoundly.

Today’s story about baby Moses in the bulrushes provides a fantastic illustration of the potential for changing the world.  It is a story about heroines – 5 pivotal women who forever alter the course of history by their action or inaction, by their choices of obedience or disobedience.  It isn’t something they set out to do – just as we don’t set out each morning to be heroes or heroines, but the history of a nation and of a faith will forever attest to these 6 people. 

The beginning of Exodus starts on a chilling note. There’s a new pharaoh in town, descended from a line of pharaohs who conveniently lost all memory of Joseph and his people, once considered allies and honored guests.   Wishing to solidify his political base, he identifies a common enemy, a scapegoat to blame for whatever current problems plague society. We’ve seen this movie before. In the thirties, it was the Jews. More recently it’s been, by turns, illegal immigrants, welfare moms, gays, the “undeserving” poor, Muslims, etc.  For the pharaoh, it was the Israelites.

They get fingered by a Pharaoh for all the problems in Egypt.  So, he first deprives them of rights, then enslaves them, and finally resorts to his own brand of genocide.  He commands the Hebrew midwives to kill all the baby boys they help deliver.  In the part of Melinda did not read, two such midwives — Shiphrah and Puah, refuse. They do not kill the boys. They lie to Pharaoh, telling him that the Hebrew women give birth too quickly, delivering the babies before the midwives arrive on the scene.  At great risk to themselves, they obeyed their conscience and their God in an act of civil disobedience – in order, not so much to change the course of history, but to save lives.

Among the boys they saved was the infant son of a Levite and his wife.  Out of this mother’s great love for her son and in an act of civil disobendience, she kept him out of sight of the Egyptians for three months, but when she could hide him no longer, she made a basket, covered it in pitch, and set him afloat in the Nile.  Even with his sister keeping watch, the baby would not last more than a couple of days before it died of hunger, exposure, or wild animals.  But, in the story we know so well, the pharaoh’s daughter spies the little ark, sees that it is a Hebrew baby.  Obeying her heart and her conscience, she commits an act of civil disobedience – in order not so much to change the course of history, but to save a baby’s life.  She rescues the child, and sends his brave sister to fetch a Hebrew woman to nurse him.  The woman, of course, is the baby’s mother. The sister didn’t set out to change the course of history, but to reunite a heartsick mother with her infant son.

A strong of small, courageous acts – on the part of midwives, a mother, a sister, and a princess.  A cast of brave and honorable characters that any little girl would aspire to play.

Taken together, their acts of civil disobedience changed history, for one of the boys who is spared will be called Moses and he will lead the Israelites out of Egyptian captivity. He will deliver God’s law to the Israelites and bring them to the promised land. And it all startd with two women willing to say “no” to an act of injustice. I doubt very much they thought they were changing the world. But they were, just by being faithful, by following the dictates of their hearts, by heeding the call of conscience.

Andy Andrews wrote a little book called The Butterfly Effect in which he catalogues the extraordinary impact of simple and courageous efforts. Except when you go back, you can never really tell which efforts made the biggest difference. So, for instance, should Norman Borlaug, who developed disease resistant corn and wheat be credited with saving two billion lives from famine, or should Henry Wallace, the one-term U.S. Vice-President, who created an office in New Mexico to develop hybrid seed for arid climates and hired Borlaug to run it. Or should we credit George Washington Carver, who took a young Henry Wallace for long walks and instilled in him his love of plants. Or should it be Moses and Susan Carver, who adopted the orphaned George Wallace Carver as their son. Or should it be…  Well, you get the idea.  Andrews points out how inter-connected and consequential our actions are – even the smallest actions.  A tiny deed creates an unforeseen butterfly effect that can ripple across time and space to affect the lives of millions.

Writing to other pastors, Rev.David Lose says, “Who knows? Maybe one of your hearers is a school teacher who will give encouragement to a student who will see something in herself that she hadn’t before and in turn befriend another student who was on the verge of giving up on life…. Or maybe a young person who hears your sermon will stand up to the neighborhood bully this week and not only help the kids being bullied but also the bully, who never had anyone care enough to stand up to him before, and in turn he’ll go on to be a police officer who protects the vulnerable…. Or maybe an elder in your congregation will be moved to volunteer to read to kids at the local library and one of those kids will discover a passion for language and will grow up to be the poet laureate….“

Yesterday at his brother’s memorial service, I heard Donnie thank Babe and Dot for buying him his first piano – and for seeing that he had piano lessons.    “They were responsible for my career and for my life as a musician,” he said.  But that is something they could not have known when they bought the instrument.  All they could see, at the time, was a boy who had a passion and aptitude for the piano.  But I’m sure other people had a hand in Donnie’s success – his high school, college, and conservatory instructors who taught him, his parents who helped pay the bills, a long line of pianists, performers, composers, and arrangers who inspired him, and his long-suffering wife who sometimes contented herself with standing in the shadows of his spotlight  (it isn’t easy being married to a musician).

And so, there is no simple cause for any given effect.  The things we do this week — our actions, decisions, choices — will, in fact, ripple out with consequences foreseen and unforeseen, for good or for ill, for the health or damage of the world.  Our courteous manner with the store cashier may change the conduct of the 2 or 3 customers waiting behind us, which may, in turn, lead someone to really see her for the first time, which may develop into to a friendship, or an invitation to church, or a better job offer.  Our response to a friend’s bad news may determine whether he sees his situation as a challenge or a disaster, whether he seeks and follows sound medical advice, whether he turns to God in prayer, whether – in fact—he gets better or worse.

So, the question isn’t whether what we do will change the world, but HOW.  Because we alter our environment every second of every day whether we like it or not.  The choice is whether we alter it for better or for worse.  Some of our actions may be big, bold, and courageous. Others may be small, mundane, and hardly noticeable. And yet they all have the potential to ripple out, affecting countless lives.

In today’s reading it’s Shiphrah and Puah, quietly standing up to a bully and tyrant, a desperate mother defying an edict to kill her son, a sister brave enough to defend her brother, and a princess championing a minority baby. They were just people like you and me — yet, each by her own action, freed her people from bondage.  That’s how history is written:  one decision at a time, one act at a time, one person at a time, one day at a time.

There is a reason why the Gospel of Matthew begins with the tedious geneology of Jesus:  “Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah” then on to lesser-known names “Eleazar the father of Matthan, Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph, husband of Mary, to whom was born Jesus . . . .”  The Gospel writer is reminding us that Jesus was the product of, by his  count, 42 generations of individuals, growing up, choosing a marriage partner, living their lives, choosing to be obedient or disobedient one act at a time.

And so it is with us.  Jesus said, “You are the light of the world, and the salt of the earth”  We can put our light on a stand or hide it under a bushel basket.  We can use our salt to make life palatable, or allow it to leach into the soil where nothing will grow.   By action or default, we are changing the world.  The question is HOW.  AMEN