In the summer of 2006, my family decided to go backpacking in upstate New York. We were far from home and far from anyone we knew. And on one hot day, as our car snaked up a mountain and came around a narrow turn, dad didn’t turn fast enough and we smashed into a large white truck.
I didn’t know I had internal injuries and broken bones. I didn’t know my entire family had internal injuries and broken bones. But I knew that when the old man came running out of his house and got on his hands and knees on the pavement so I could lean on his back because it hurt too much to lie on the ground — I’d never felt so grateful for the compassion of another human being in my life.
He had plenty of excuses not to help us. He was old! We were strangers. And I’m sure it didn’t feel very good to press his knees into the pavement while we waited for an ambulance. But somehow he knew that in that moment, he was capable of something that we weren’t capable of, and his heart was open to providing the compassion we needed.
In today’s scripture passage we read about a Hebrew boy born into a devastating situation. Pharaoh had put forth a decree commanding, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile.” When his mother conceived and bore a son, she was expected to make preparations for his death. But instead, she crafts a waterproof basket. She places him gently into the basket and floats him downstream with her prayers, and with his sister, Miriam, keeping watch.
When I first re-read the Moses story in Exegesis, I had the most trouble with the Pharaoh’s daughter, who appears next. I’d done a power analysis and wanted this to be a pure liberation story where the oppressed band together to overthrow Pharaoh’s household. But that wasn’t the part we were supposed to focus on. No – we were supposed to focus on the part where a member of the oppressing group has compassion on a member of the oppressed group. And she saves the day.
This is the last thing I wanted to preach a sermon at Union about. I have stories about Union that I’m still untangling now — stories about a white liberal institution that doesn’t really know how to talk about race, which are really stories about being teased by kids in my mostly white middle school when I was a new immigrant from the Philippines. And since Union is the first time I’ve been launched back into a mostly white setting since middle school and I’m still angry about how I was othered, this was the last place where I wanted to preach about the “oppressor” saving the day.
Last week I had a panic attack in the middle of the quad and a girl who I’d labeled “queen of the white liberal establishment of Union” took me in her arms and talked me through. She told me to slow down, breathe. She told me about her day. She told me it helped to make eye contact, so I had to look into her eyes. Really, God? Her?
I had never been very kind to her, so she didn’t need to walk towards me, paralyzed on the bench. But she’d been through panic attacks before. She knew that in that moment, she was capable of something that I wasn’t capable of. And her heart was open to providing the compassion that I needed.
When Pharaoh’s daughter saw the basket, she knew that in that context of empire — built on fear and slavery and death — she was capable of something this little boy’s mother wasn’t capable of. She could’ve minimized her power in that moment — played victim to Pharaoh’s edict, to her womanhood, to her father. And we would’ve understood.
But Pharaoh’s daughter uses her power. In the end, her compassion creates life from a situation of death and paves the way for the rest of the Biblical narrative.
What are you uniquely positioned to do?
Will you claim your power or play victim to circumstance?
Will you have compassion, if it means overturning and transforming your entire household?