Sermon: “Breaking the Rules” (Exodus 2:1-11)

(NB: This sermon owes a tremendous debt to Kelley Nikondeha’s remarkable book, “Defiant: What the Women of Exodus Teach Us About Freedom.” Run, don’t walk, to read the book.)

It’s been on t.v. for ages now, but when it first began there was nothing like the t.v. show, “Survivor.” 

Most people have seen it at least once. 

You may or may not like the show.  You may not entirely like that you like the show.  But many, many of us have at least seen the show.  

“Survivor” is, of course, part reality t.v. and part game show, with a group of people from all kinds of walks of life get marooned somewhere beautiful but marginally deadly….a place with lush green foliage and enormous, hungry reptiles.  Waters the color of lapis lazuli…and the most ferocious sharks known to science.  

They arrive without food, fire or shelter and have to, well, survive

They can only do this through a combination of working together and looking out for #1, and the whole thing has a Darwinian “survival of the fittest” kind of twist that is never far off, because at the end of each episode, your collaborators have to vote one of you off the island for good.  

The early rounds just pick off the ones who drag down the group—the hapless Gilligan kind of people who let the fire go out by accident, or lose some sort of contest by falling out of a boat or dropping the tiki torch at the crucial moment.  

One by one they go. 

The last one standing wins a million dollars. 

“Survival,” at least at the show depicts it, turns out to be a combination of physical prowess, outdoor skill, and political acumen – and as each season unfolds, it is clear that over time, it’s the political acumen that is the single most important thing keeping you in the game. 

That said, in the years I watched “Survivor,” there were times I wondered why the contestants agreed to play by the rules. 

Why was it that they accepted the terms of winner take all, and all others take none?  

If they wanted to, couldn’t they take working together to the next level, and come up with a totally different outcome – one in which didn’t show up for the little side games that were designed to turn them against one another? 

Why did they buy into the rules they were handed? 

Why not just split the money?  

With a little imagination and an openness to unorthodox collaboration, a very different world was surely possible.  


This morning’s Scripture from the Book of Exodus, and it describes the rescue of the infant Moses. 

What happens in the story is anything but a game, although it is certainly true that Moses was nothing if not a survivor.  

He was born at a moment of tremendous injustice and oppression.

In fact, the Hebrew people may have taken their name from this moment: “Habiru” is a word that may point to an Egyptian word for “foreigner.” 

And if you hear in that something that sounds like a new sense of “us” and “them” into what had been a warm and life-giving collaboration—a kind of unity—well, that’s probably on target.  

In this story, Egypt is ruled by a wicked Pharoah, consumed with fear of strangers, foreigners he worries that he won’t be able to control.  

Accordingly, he takes strong measures, and commands that all the newly born males of the Hebrew people should be thrown into the Nile. 

In Egypt, Pharoah is the one who makes the rules, and so Pharoah’s fears and Pharoah’s agenda are the only game in town. 

Or so it seems. 

Because Scripture’s point is that in the deep darkness of such a terrible hour, a ray of light emerges.  

Something different begins. 

Redemption is at work.  

In the improbable survival of this particular infant, Moses, God is at work to secure the survival of so many others—God is at work to let God’s people go.  

But what we may not notice quite so readily is how much saving Moses is the result of an unorthodox collaboration, as a group of women decides that they will not buy into the rules they have been handed. 

Somehow, without conferring or plotting, this group decides to work for a very different outcome for this one child, not realizing that he is a figure of destiny. 

Or maybe the point is that any child has a destiny that ought to claim our loyalty, no matter who the child is or what that destiny might be…because it’s not about saving our own flesh and blood, so much as it is about making a way so that all God’s children can make theirs.  

I don’t know. 

But something happens there along the banks of the Nile. 

Moses’ mother has risked everything by keeping him alive up to now, which she had decided to do entirely on her own. 

But now he’s just too big for that to continue. 

Those cries at night are getting too loud.   You can’t hide a crib in a one room shack in the middle of a shantytown set up in Pharoah’s brick yard. 

It’s not like women were excused from daily work, themselves.   

And so, with all that being the case, it looks like Pharoah’s rules are going to win, after all.  

Moses’ mother makes him a basket out of papyrus and seals the cracks with bitumen and pitch they had all around them for making Pharoah’s bricks.

Is it hope that prompts her to make the baby a little boat to float away in? 

Or is it just a final act of tenderness? 

The story never says.  

In the early morning, while the sun is still just coming up, and the neighborhood has not started stirring, she carries the little basket down to the river to let the child go. 

But you see, she’s not the only one out there. 

Pharoah’s moves are designed to convince us otherwise.  They’re all about trying to keep us lonely and afraid and convinced that we must be the only one.  

But there’s somebody else out there by the river on this particular morning.  

Pharoah’s own daughter with her entourage has gone down by the river to bathe.  

And when this Hebrew lady wades in on the other side of the river and goes out to where the current runs strongest, lets go of some basket and watches it slowly drift away, it turns out there is someone just a little further downstream who’s there to catch it.  

And when this fancy Pharoah’s daughter sees that basket in the reeds and hears a cry come from it, she would have known what her father expected her to do. 

She would have known the dangerous game she was getting herself into.  

Even in a palace, it’s not so easy to muffle a cry, or hide a crib, or explain the presence of a toddler.  

But somehow in that moment, by the grace of God, Pharoah’s daughter sees that her father has them all locked in an even more dangerous game—a game of loneliness and fear and injustice and violence.  

She decides she will not simply go along and play that game as he would have her do along with everyone else, as she has up to now. 

She decides that she isn’t going to buy the rules that she’s been handed, and will, instead, work for a very different outcome for this one child.  

And God being God, wouldn’t you know it that right at that moment, a young Hebrew girl appears, and helpfully says she might just know a lady who could be a wet nurse for the baby, “assuming that you’re keeping it, your highness.”  

And the princess pauses maybe just a moment and says yes.  


So a group of women…a mother, an adoptive mother, and a sister…collaborate for the saving of this one child…this child who turns out to be the instrument of God’s liberation.  

And isn’t that such a reminder of God’s dream? 

Doesn’t our God just hope that we will unlock the power of salvation, and act in ways that let God pour the power of redemption into the things we do? 

So much of our lives get wasted playing games that turn out to be rigged, run by rules that make us all losers in the end. 

So often, it’s the game that’s playing us.  

But something else is possible. 

The power of a God who stands always on the side of dignity and flourishing and hope is at work in the world.  

We see it in the bravery of these women, making a way out of no way, saying yes to each moment that shows up like a message in a bottle or a baby in a basket. 

The story teaches us to say yes to those moments when they appear in our lives, and to hear God’s invitation to midwife a better world into being. 

We may have to rewrite a lot of the rules to make that happen. 

We may have to collaborate in some unorthodox ways. 

It’s not easy to see one another when your eyes have been trained to look elsewhere for so long.  

But there’s more to life than just surviving, and it’s in our capacity to love and serve and see one another that we begin to find it. 

This morning, the women show us how, and remind us why.  

All those with ears to hear, let them hear.  Amen.

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