Last Sunday's Sermon on Park51

Several people have asked to read the sermon from Sunday. I've been waiting for it to go up on the church website, but until then, here it is. It's funny, looking at it now. It really doesn't feel all that controversial.

MaryAnn McKibben Dana Idylwood Presbyterian Church August 22, 2010 "God’s Greatest Hits": Sermon Series Baby Moses: Exodus 2:1-10

Among the Reeds

We’ve heard a lot of great stories this summer in our series, many of which were chosen by members of the congregation. Today’s text is one of my choices. I distinctly remember learning this story as a child in Sunday School, and can picture the coloring page that our teacher handed out with an adorable baby Moses nestled in the basket while his big sister looks on.

As I learned the story, Moses’ sister (Miriam) was the clear hero, quick to jump in with a solution, ready to manipulate Pharoah’s daughter into not only allowing their mother to continue to nurse him, but to get paid for it! Quite a clever girl indeed. In my childhood remembrance of the story, Pharoah’s daughter has a less prominent role.

Now, it’s certainly possible that Pharoah’s daughter is “played” by Miriam. It could be that she’s set up to be nothing more than a dumb member of the ruling class. This is a well-established framework for these kinds of stories, from the book of Exodus to Br’er Rabbit. But I think Pharoah’s daughter knows exactly what’s going on. I think she understands the situation quite well: that this baby, and the young girl looking on, and the woman who will nurse him, are all part of the same family, victims of a heinous plot cooked up by her father to decimate the Hebrew people by eliminating the sons (see Exodus chapter 1).

But what is it about Pharoah’s daughter that gives her the generosity to let the woman nurse the child—and pay her for it? Where does she get the compassion to let this Hebrew child, a child of another race, not only live, but be raised as royalty?

The other night I was working on the computer and a friend (who’s a big fan of musical theater) sent a message: “Hey, South Pacific is on Live at Lincoln Center!” I had some laundry sitting in the basement to be folded so I thought Sounds good! Many of you know South Pacific; it’s one of the great musicals from the 20th century. It takes place during World War II and addresses themes of racism.

I tuned in just in time to see the scene in which Nellie finds out Emile (her love interest) has fathered two children. Nellie, from Arkansas, just cannot handle the scandal of this news. In the next scene, another character (dealing with his own prejudices) says such feelings are “not born in you” and he sings the famous song:

You've got to be taught To hate and fear, You've got to be taught From year to year, It's got to be drummed In your dear little ear You've got to be carefully taught…

You've got to be taught before it's too late, Before you are six or seven or eight, To hate all the people your relatives hate, You've got to be carefully taught!

I’ve read that Rodgers and Hammerstein were under great pressure to change the song and to soften the themes of the show. In fact the Georgia legislature wanted to outlaw entertainment they saw as sympathetic to communism. One legislator said interracial marriage was “implicitly a threat to the American way of life.”[i] Sad, isn’t it?

Somehow, Pharoah’s daughter was not taught to hate the people her father hated. For whatever reason, she missed that lesson. Which is amazing, really. Her father had a campaign underway to slaughter the Hebrew sons, because he felt threatened, because he hated and feared the people, but somehow his daughter didn’t get the message. Something in her took pity on the baby in the reeds. Something in her heart softened toward him and his plight. And thank God for that, because if Pharoah’s daughter hadn’t done what she did, the little baby among the reeds would not have grown up to be a man who would one day stand before Pharoah’s corrupt regime and say, “Let my people go.”

I remember watching South Pacific as a teenager in Dallas—and I specifically remember this scene in which Nellie finds out about Emile’s interracial relationship. And I remember thinking Really? This was an issue? Thankfully we’ve moved on though. How quaint this show is—a period piece, for sure—but how relevant really is this musical to the world that we live in now?

Oh, how naïve I was… to think that we were past all that.

You only need to listen to the rhetoric of the past several days, over the so-called “ground zero mosque,” and the fact that many think anti-Islamic sentiment is on the rise, including a Christian church that is planning a “burn the Quran” party[ii], to see that issues of race, and culture, and how we accept people who are different, are absolutely still of utmost importance today.

I’m going to thread the needle as best I can with this, because tempers are hot around this one, and a sermon is intended to start a conversation, not finish it. This conversation takes place among you and me and scripture and the culture, with the Holy Spirit knitting it all together.

I must first say three things:

  1. 9/11 is a terrible wound. The trauma of that day may never fully heal.
  2. There are people in the world who want to do harm.
  3. Good people can have different ideas about the appropriateness of Park51 (the community center and mosque project) at this particular place and at this particular time.

That said:

What an opportunity this public discussion could have been—an opportunity to talk with one another about who we are and who we want to be as a society. What is appropriate? What does sacred space look like? If not a community center, built by a Muslim group (with the approval of rabbis and clergy, by the way, who will serve on the board), then what do we want to see in that space? How do we react to the two mosques that are already in the neighborhood? If there can be a Muslim place of prayer at the Pentagon, how is Ground Zero different? Is it different? How do we uphold the values of our nation while acknowledging the pain of those who grieve?

That would have been an important discussion, a healing discussion.

That is not what has been happening.

Instead, most civil and respectful debate has been drowned out by fear-mongering and scapegoating. One person has called the planned project a “command center for terrorism at the 9/11 site.” Imam Rauf, who has a long history of interfaith work, who attended Daniel Pearl’s funeral and spoke as an honored guest, who is widely considered to be a moderate Muslim, who somehow earned the trust of two administrations such that he is on a State-Department-sponsored speaking tour, has been branded as a radical. An extremist. Someone who is out to get “us.” The evidence for this is sketchy, to put it kindly—the best people can do is a kind of guilt by association.[iii] One person even said, “after you've killed 3,000 people, you're going to now build your mosque?”, as if the 9/11 terrorists and the Muslims involved in the Cordoba Project are one and the same.[iv]

To put it bluntly, the Muslims we know in our workplaces and neighborhoods have as much complicity in 9/11 as you and I do for the KKK. Our former President, George W. Bush, said, “Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don’t represent the best of America, they represent the worst of humankind, and they should be ashamed of that kind of behavior.”[v] He said that six days after 9/11.

Salman Hamdani was a police cadet, part-time ambulance driver, incoming medical student, and devout Muslim. When he disappeared on September 11, law enforcement officials came to his family, seeking him for questioning in relation to the terrorist attacks. His remains were finally identified 6 months later. He was found near the North Tower, with his EMT medical bag beside him, presumably doing everything he could to help those in need.[vi]

The God I believe in was as heartbroken at the death of Salman Hamdani as with the death of any other innocent victim that day.

Pharoah’s daughter peeked through the reeds of the river and looked into the face of the stranger. The other. Different race, different culture. It would have been no skin off her nose if she had just put that basket back and tiptoed away. Let someone else deal with him, or not. It’s not her problem. But she couldn’t ignore him. She couldn’t leave. I hope we as Christians, who are supposed to be about loving our neighbor, would be no less compassionate with the other than she was.

“You’ve got to be taught…” the song goes. What are we teaching as this debate rages? What are we teaching about Jesus? What are we teaching about hospitality? There’s a lot of heated rhetoric, not just about the Park 51 project, but all kinds of issues of the day. And as I said, good people can disagree. But are we going to add heat or light? Are we going to speak out against the hate and noise? Are we going to bear witness to the Prince of Peace? You’re a teacher. I’m a teacher. What are we teaching about the God we follow?

. . . . .

My poor children have my seminary training inflicted on them from time to time.

Years ago I was reading this story to Caroline from a children’s Bible. The last line was “and she named the baby Moses.”

What I said was, “she named the baby Moses, which is Hebrew for ‘pulled out,’ because she ‘pulled him out of the water.’ ”

From the other room I heard Robert say, “Give the poor child a break, she’s four!”

But you see… the name of Moses is the key to the whole thing. This business of being “pulled out”—that’s the beauty of the whole story.

And you know, it wasn’t Moses who was pulled out. It was Pharoah’s daughter who was pulled out.

Somehow or other God reached into her sheltered upper-class existence and pulled her out to a new place.

God pulled her into a place of empathy for the oppressed. God pulled her out of the cocoon of self-interest and said, “This foreigner needs your care. ”

And God’s pulling us out— pulling us out of our own agendas, our own tightly-held prejudices, into a new place, an uncomfortable place, to be sure, a vulnerable place, where not everybody looks like us or dresses like us or thinks like us or worships like us.

But it’s a good place we’re being pulled into. It’s a place that looks a whole lot like the kingdom of God.

This I believe.

[i] references the following article:

Andrea Most, "‘You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught’: The Politics of Race in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific" Theater Journal 52, no. 3 (October 2000), 306.

[ii] Religious Freedom, Free Speech Face Off Nationwide, by David Shaper on NPR,

[iii] For Imam in Muslim Center Furor, a Hard Balancing Act, New York Times, August 21, 2010