Having to let go - St Bride's: Reflection

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St Bride's: Sermons

Having to let go

Exodus 1: 8 - 2: 10

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8 Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9 He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” 11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13 The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14 and 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 on them.

15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” 17 But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18 So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” 19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” 20 So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22 Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”

Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. 2 The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. 3 When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. 4 His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.

5 The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. 6 When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him. “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. 7 Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” 8 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 9 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. 10 When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.”

I love the story of Moses. Because apart from being a rattling good yarn from beginning to end, it is also a story that contains a great deal of wisdom about both the realities of human life and the ways of God.

You will all, I'm sure, be familiar with the story that we heard as our first reading this morning. Moses, the son of two Hebrew slaves, has the misfortune to be born in Egypt just at the time when a paranoid Pharaoh has ordered the wholesale slaughter of all newly-born Hebrew boys, fearing that the enslaved Israelites were growing more numerous and more powerful than the Egyptians. Initially, Pharaoh attempts to make the Hebrew midwives responsible for carrying out this appalling deed. When this plan fails, he simply gives orders that all Hebrew boys are to be thrown into the river Nile to drown.

When Moses' mother gives birth to a son, she does what I imagine most mothers would do in her terrible situation: she hides the boy for as long as she can. But she can only hope to conceal him for a short time - to attempt to hold on to him for longer would be to risk discovery and lead to his certain death. So, what is she to do? She cannot keep him, but nor can she pass him on to any other Hebrew family to care for - because, of course, he would be no safer with anyone else, even if they were willing to risk taking him in in the first place, which was doubtful.

So, in the end, Moses' distraught mother is driven to do precisely what Pharaoh has ordered: she does indeed put her son in the Nile. But she places him there in a waterproofed basket, so that she is at least spared the horror of being directly responsible for his death. In doing so she surrenders her little boy, and his destiny, into the hands of God.

By chance the child is discovered in the bulrushes by Pharaoh's daughter, who decides to adopt him as her own. And then we come to the glorious twist in the story: because, thanks to the agency of Moses' elder sister, who has been watching this unfold, Moses' own mother ends up being employed as his nurse. So, ironically, having surrendered her son to his fate, she not only gets him back, but she gets a salary thrown in as well.

There is something at the heart of this story, and what it reveals about the ways of God, that for me rings true. I suspect that some of us, like Moses' mother, have at some point in the past found ourselves forced to surrender something that we held very dear - because we had no option but to let it go. That precious item could be an object, or a relationship, or simply a profound hope or aspiration: the dream of a work promotion; perhaps even a change of career. Whatever form it takes, it can be unbearably painful to have to relinquish it, when we finally realise that we have no other choice.

And yet (here is the really strange bit): it is certainly my own experience that, if we are able to take that difficult step of letting (whatever it is) go, and entrusting it to God - then, oddly enough, it can sometimes end up finding its way back to us, when we least expect it, and more often than not with an added bonus attached.

When I was awarded my doctorate, twenty years ago, my examiners were strongly of the view that I ought to publish my PhD, and even suggested the publisher to whom I should send it. Glowing with the new-found sense of my own importance and convinced of the earth-shattering significance of my academic work (please note, I am being ironic here), I duly sent it off, confident that a book deal was in the bag.

The rejection letter that followed was crushing - not only because my self-confidence was in reality quite fragile, but more significantly because it dealt a body blow to some of my personal aspirations. Any of you who are writers yourselves will, I'm sure, recognize the cliché that your creations are your babies, because they carry within them so much of you, the author. So it is hard not to take rejection personally. But for me, dropping that specific project was also linked to a much broader issue: namely my decision to set aside any remaining ambition I had to seek a future in academe. Which was hard.

But about five years later, a bizarre sequence of events and encounters led to a completely unexpected outcome. I was older and wiser by then, and had in fact completely changed my view on a number of the core assumptions that had informed my doctoral research. In short, I had discovered that I disagreed with myself (which, of course, I could do with great authority). I was prompted by others to put in a rather different book proposal, although it was based on the same basic doctoral research.

To my astonishment, Oxford University Press was interested, and subsequently published it. So I ended up producing a far better book, with a far better publisher, which had a far greater impact on my subject of study than my published doctorate would ever have achieved. My OUP book has opened all kinds of doors for me since its publication. Amongst other things, it is the reason why I now represent the Church of England internationally on one of its theological commissions.

But much more importantly, in the process I had also discovered that my real vocation is as a parish priest with academic interests, who writes things - rather than as an academic who happens to be ordained. And that journey of discovery was only possible because I had been forced to let go - really let go - of all those earlier rather misplaced hopes and aspirations, and instead entrust the whole lot to God. What I eventually received back was far more significant, and far more appropriate, and far more lasting, than what I relinquished. It took a real act of trust, and a real act of will to be able to let it go. But goodness me did it pay off in the end.

It always depresses me when I hear people - sometimes even Churchgoing Christians, refer to prayer as if it were basically a matter of presenting a wish-list to God - the underlying assumption being that if you are well-behaved enough, or have enough faith, God will deliver the goods as requested. (I have described this before as the 'Celestial cash-dispenser' model of God.) But surely, if prayer is basically about our relationship with God (and how could it be anything else?) - what kind of relationship would that represent? - a relationship in which one party simply presents the other with a list of demands and expects them to be met? True relationships, deep relationships, lasting relationships, even on the human level, are as much about listening as they are speaking. They are about mutual respect. They are rooted in truth. And they are based upon trust. The best kind of friend will sometimes be able to discern our needs even before we have recognized them ourselves. And the best kind of friend is one who loves us enough, and knows us well enough, to be able to say hard and uncomfortable things to us sometimes. Like: 'I think you need to let go of that. You cannot cling on to it. And even though the future without it may feel bleak or unclear, trust me. I am with you. I will not leave you. And I will not let you down.'

And now imagine that on a cosmic scale: our relationship with our Heavenly Father, who knows us better than we know ourselves. The God to whom we can entrust all that is most precious in our lives, knowing that such things will always be held safe, even when they are no longer ours to possess. A God who also, without us even realizing it, has been working tirelessly on our behalf, opening up the possibility of something even better and more appropriate that still lies ahead of us.

Our Collect this morning - the special prayer for today, makes reference to us becoming 'partakers of [God's] heavenly treasure.' And that is God's promise to us. But treasure in heaven is a very different thing from those earthly treasures that are transient, ephemeral, and soon lose their lustre. And just as God's timing is not always of our choosing, so too God's wisdom will always exceed our own.

Which is why perhaps the single most important thing we can ever do is to learn how to trust him, and to entrust to him, all that is most precious to us. And, hard though it may be, sometimes to recognize that the time has come for us simply to let go.

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