Rev. Kathy Nelson
August 24, 2014
We returned on a Tuesday afternoon from the middle school camping trip. We spent three days up the Echo Trail out of Ely at Fenske Lake in the beautiful group site high on the bluff overlooking the lake. We got wet. It was the dampest trip I’ve ever had with kids, but they were great. They played games of capture the flag in the mist and Apples to Apples or I Doubt It in tents when it was truly raining. The only real bust was Monday dinner. In the cold and damp, I grew impatient and put the nine family size boxes of mac and cheese in the pot before it really started to boil. We ended up with a starchy mess—but the kids even ate that. I think the four sticks of butter and extra cheddar cheese left over from lunch helped. Some of the boys even came back for seconds.
On the following Thursday three of the girls from the canoe trip had mac and cheese again. Ten family size boxes made by Jackie Falk and Zoe Simpson in our kitchen at church. We brought it down to the Chum Drop in Center and served it with hot dogs and jello, cup cakes and juice. It tasted far better . . . they had let the water come to a full boil. But it was no trip in the park . . . We served over 100 folks that night. They ate everything we brought, including the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches made and bagged to go. What disheartened me the most was the number of kids. There were lots and lots of kids going through the line. Standing there it got me thinking about the story I had to preach on the next Sunday. The story of Pharoah’s hard heart who ordered the killing of the Hebrew baby boys. Whose babies are we metaphorically throwing in the river, overwhelmed by the poverty and storms of life?
Jay Parini, a poet and novelist who teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont, wrote this for a CNN opinion piece in August: “The growing income gap is perhaps the most pressing issue before the world, not just the United States, as the level of misery rises among the poor. Even those formerly known as the middle class, who have struggled mightily to make ends meet for decades now, face an array of problems that create mental and physical pain on a vast scale.”
He pointed to a fascinating new study from the Journal of Experimental Psychology. Three Canadian neuroscientists have suggested that being rich and powerful actually makes you less happy and, even worse, unable to sympathize with the poor. They found that the rich and powerful among us show less brain activity in that region of the brain where human sympathy exists.
“Power diminishes all varieties of sympathy,” explains Dacher Keltner, a social psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, in a recent interview on NPR. Conversely, those who feel poor and marginalized in society show a great deal of sympathetic activity.
The ability to sympathize with those around us seems crucial to our survival, and it’s connected to the mirroring functions of the brain. As the research now suggests, the richer and more powerful we feel, the deader will be that area of our brain where this crucial activity, which generates empathy, occurs. In fact, power fundamentally changes the way we respond to those around us.
Pharaoh’s brain in the biblical story from Exodus that we hear throughout these coming Sundays truly has been changed by power and wealth; it surely diminished his empathy. . . He has forgotten the stories of his people’s past . . . He doesn’t remember Joseph and his dream which saved the people of Egypt from starvation.
He is afraid as the number of Hebrews in his land grows and grows. And he responds with more violence and repression. God acts, but in a whole new way. God acts through people on the margins, a few women’s choices change the history of an entire people. The midwives will not do what is asked by Pharaoh, they cannot take the lives of babies they are called to help bring into the world. Moses’ mother hides her child in a basket, sending his sister to watch and guard this ark of hope. And Pharaoh’s daughter dares to disobey her father’s cruel order and takes this Hebrew child as her own.
These women risk so much, the empathy regions of their brains are working overtime. They will not follow orders they know will destroy, but follow their hearts and heads filled with compassion. Miriam watches her baby brother and she will be with him in the future too as they cross the waters of the Red Sea. She will sing the first hymn of praise in all of our scripture. She will sing a song of God’s grace and triumph. In her song are the first notes perhaps of what we have come to know as jazz. Walter Brueggemann has written an elegant sermon on this story from Exodus. He reminds us that the origin of jazz was in its “natural habitat” in “the barrio,” among “those who go for broke every time because there is so little to lose, so much to hear and say, so much to hope. . .” Brueggemann goes on to say that we can actually “go back past New Orleans to the very bottom of the story of jazz. It is told in Exodus 1, told in the midst of a Pharaoh whose name we cannot remember, because if you have seen one Pharaoh, you have seen them all. This nameless ‘Lord of Egypt’ who tries to stop the music. . .” The courageous women are at the heart of the story, he says: “Because of their singing the Hebrew barrio became a future-infested place from which has arisen all the later daring dances of freedom, a dance of defiance and gratitude and hope.”
There are women and men still singing their songs in spite of all the world has thrown at them. We are called to join them. To work and sing for justice for all God’s people. In June, singer song writer Larry Long went with me to the St. Louis County Jail during my regular bible study time with the women there.
Thirteen women came that day and each of the women wrote their individual dreams on slips of paper with colored pencils. The women then shared their dreams out loud with everyone. We then wrote their dreams down on one large sheet of paper and wove together a collectively written song. Larry sang it at the 10th Annual CHUM Rhubarb Festival, in honor of Steve O’Neil. Below are their lyrics:
It’s Another Day
I dream of a future sober and bright
Progressively moving towards the light
Free of shackles and jails, addiction and crime
The rattling keys which measures time
Of another day
I dream of a future of family and friends
Of children’s laughter that never ends
Fathers, daughters, brothers, wives
Together free flying high on life
For another day
I dream of a future together with peace
Putting silence to pain, may suffering cease
In a nation of sisters and brothers,
Love, respect, compassion for others
It’s another day
No more despair
Where people really care
It’s another day
No more despair
It’s another day
It is another day and so let us be part of the birthing, not the dying. New hope, new life rising. Let us open our hearts and our minds to be people of compassion and courage. We are all midwives, mothers and fathers, a nation of sisters and brothers.