Sermon – The Longaberger Legend

Romans 12:1-5; Exodus 1: 8-2:10                                                              

Farmville Presbyterian Church

August 27, 2023

– God raises hope in desperation


We begin the conversation this week with the most famous Farmvillian this week, Oliver Anthony.  At least that is his stage name.  He is really Christopher Anthony Lundsford, and if you have absolutely no idea of whom I speak, then you have been missing all news for some time.  Yes, that is the young man who performed that world famous song, “Rich Men North of Richmond.”  He beat out all the big music names to claim the number 1 spot on the popular music billboard even though his song was not even on most radio.  His song was featured at the Republican debate the other night, something Anthony complained about.  This humble musician has been offered music deals in the millions according to him, all of which he has turned down.  He did play the other night a block over at the Press Club.  I was leaving work when folks were pouring into town and lining up down the block just to get in.  Across the street, folk were charging $10 a parking spot for the event.  Maybe we should offer to pray with people if they park in our lot.  Not a fee, of course, but a blessing instead of a cost.  Anyway, something about Anthony and his incredible, meteoric fame that catches my attention is that has a lot in common with Moses.

Very simple people from a poor, working class who saw suffering that affected their lives and callings.  Both men were conditioned by poverty and oppression.  Both men spoke out to power.  Instead of challenging Pharoah, Anthony challenged Washington elites.  Neither man was looking for a limelight but both found it in abundance.  Of course, baby Anthony (as far as we know) was not sent out on the water in a basket by his parents.  Still, we should very much see a portrait of two people coming up from the very bottom to speak to the powers of wealth and privilege.

No, I am not trying to idolize either man.  Both are men created from their difficult circumstances.  I just find it interesting that people from such humble, humble beginnings can rise to challenge the powers of this world in such a prominent way.

Egypt was one of the great empires of Moses’ day, one of the greatest, though at this time diminished a little.  I imagine that’s what made Pharoah nervous about a bunch of non-Egyptians living withing their borders.  Sadly, people have a history of being suspicious, if not hostile, to those who seem foreign around us.  Even though Native Americans were here first, they became as foreigners to European Americans as our presence grew and expanded.  African slaves were always held in suspicion.  Japanese Americans were locked up during World War 2 just for being Japanese.  Communist scares have never gone away.  After 9/11, Arab Americans were not exactly welcomed on American soil.  Today, many Americans would rather see our borders completely shut rather than admit anyone, even though they are essential to our present economy.  I think you see my point.  Here in Exodus, it is Hebrew people living in Egypt.  Empire is shaking and quaking over the Jews just down the road, and empire decides to crush them.  It’s easy for me to wonder how the story might have played out different if Pharoah had just reached out.  What if Pharoah worked to create a healthy collegial relationship with the people?  Instead, we get a tale of terror for the ages.  If Pharoah’s evil had happened today, it would resemble the worst of war-torn places in the world, this form of genocide – a crime against humanity.

And that’s just the beginning.  There is absolutely so much in Exodus 1.  The older I get, the more I love these stories in all their complexity.  Notice that Pharoah does not even get a name, but we have Hebrew women named.  They are the important ones, the heroes.  They even shame the Egyptian people to Pharoah’s face by slighting the Egyptian women as weak compared to the Hebrew women.  God blesses them richly.

Notice that Pharoah instructs his people to throw Hebrew baby boys into the Nile, and that is exactly where Moses actually goes.  Again and again, God takes everything Pharoah has or does and puts it back over on Pharoah.  More of this follows with the plagues in the chapters to come, but for now, we are back in the water.  The same word for basket is used for the word for ark in Genesis.  Moses is set out in a new ark, holding life and hope and faith.  This is a new start for the people of God.

Pharoah’s daughter, who should be an extension of his will, defies her father for Moses’ sake.  She is not an idiot.  She knows her father’s feelings toward the Jews, but she adopts a Hebrew baby despite her father’s fear and hatred and even gives him a Hebrew name memorializing his coming from the water.  Then, Moses’ mother gets to keep the baby and nurse him until he is two years old while being paid by Pharoah’s family to do it.  This story is humorous and tragic in the same breath.

How desperate would you have to be to put your 3-month-old baby in a basket and send him down a great river by himself?  We don’t know if Moses’ mother asked his sister to follow and watch, but there was not a whole lot she could have done if the basket had sprung a leak out in the middle of the massive Nile.  This story is supposed to show how God’s path was through the most humble and simple way.  It should sound a lot like a baby being born in a food trough in Bethlehem more than two thousand years later.  In this most inglorious way, God gives us a future from the very bottom.

This sounds to me like the story of Abraham Lincoln, too.  When he was born, it was not exactly clear who his father was.  There was a question in the family because of his mother and some of her behavior.  Lincoln’s father was a brutal alcoholic.  His mother died early in his life, and his father rented Abraham out as a slave for income.  If his father had not remarried, Abraham’s life would have been very different.  His stepmother was the mother to him that he never really had, but the family was poor.  He had to work for education and a future.  Eventually, through failure and loss and disappointment, he ended up saving the unity of our nation as president.  Along the way, he lost loved ones, children, and his own life, but he gave us a future as a nation.  Many saw him as a God-given leader, but he never forgot his beginnings.  That is why he never gave up working for something better.

This story is for the Oliver Anthonys out there in the world.  That baby who started out in a basket, not a Longaberger basket, I’ll admit, became the leader of God’s people and the greatest Jewish prophet.  He spoke for God and spent time with God unlike anyone else.  There was nothing truly special about that boy born in desperate times and slavery.  His mother loved him enough to give him a chance for something greater and entrusted him to God’s hand.

How many of us dismiss the humble, turn away the simple, disregard the plain, and even scorn the poor?  Anthony’s own song walks a fine line between those who are trapped in welfare and those who refuse to try to improve.  It is hard to pass judgment without having walked that path ourselves.  Poverty is no one’s right.  Poverty is no one’s choice.  Poverty is no one’s dream.  Humility, however, is a path to God’s help.  Through the humble, through the poor, through the simple, God has done some of God’s greatest work.  Pride is the worst of sin according to 20th century theologian and writer CS Lewis.  God can do very little with the proud.  Pride is our way to put ourselves in God’s shoes, but with the humble, with the basket babies, God can change the world.  To God be the glory.  Amen.