Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.
Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, ‘Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.’
Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.’ So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.
Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.
This image of Crossing of the Red Sea and Miriam Dancing and Singing Notes: From the Chludov Psalter -- "Chludov Psalter (Moscow, Hist. Mus. MS. D.129) is an illuminated marginal Psalter made in the middle of the 9th Century. For more information, go to: http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55470
How Are We to Follow: Exodus 14:19-31
My research for the sermon this week reminded me of an image I have seen floating around the internet. You may have seen some version of it. It usually looks something like this: there are two pictures, each one showing three people who are standing on boxes, trying to see over a fence to watch a baseball game. In the image on the left, all three people are standing on the same size box. But, each person is a different height, so even though they have equally high boxes, the shortest of three people can't see over the fence. This picture is labeled "equality" because all people have equal tools. In the image on the right, the tallest person gives the smallest person their box so they all can see over the wall. This picture is called "equity," because the person who doesn't need a box is willing to give the box to the person who needs the most help to see over the fence.
I've seen a slightly different version of these pictures that I think is even more interesting. It has three pictures, instead of two. In the first one, all three people have the same size box and are still of different heights. In this one, the smallest person has found a hole in the fence through which they can watch the game. This is "equality." Everyone is able to watch but, we know that peering over and through a fence is not an optimal game-watching situation. In the next picture, labeled "equity," the tallest person gives the smallest their box. Now, everyone can see over the top of the fence. But, everyone is still having to deal with a fence. Why not just take the fence down... make sure everyone can see? So, a third picture is added, this one titled "liberation" with no fence. In this picture, no one has any barrier to truly enjoying the game.
Now, any of us who have been to baseball games know that fences can come in handy sometimes... nobody wants to get surprised by a fly ball to the forehead when we aren't paying attention. As you can guess, these pictures aren't really about baseball. They are about the work we can do for and with our neighbors to build a more just world. They show that sometimes people think simple equal access to tools, like everyone getting the same size box, will be enough to help everyone see the game. But, not everyone needs the same tools and, some people don't need the help at all, and could stand to share a bit with their neighbors. And, as the addition third picture without a fence reminds us, sometimes, the barriers that are keeping people from thriving just simply need to be removed.
In our story from Exodus, it appears that God figuring out who needs boxes, who needs to give up boxes, and which fences just need to come down. It seems to me that if we compared the Israelites to the metaphorical baseball game, in the book of Exodus, God gave them all the boxes to stand on, poked all kinds of holes in the fence, and then definitely pulled up the fence that was in their way. You see, after many years of suffering under Egyptian cruelty, God has become dedicated to making sure the Israelites do more than survive the oppression of the Egyptians. God wanted them to thrive and wanted to removal all the barriers to their survival. So, God sent them a cloud and God parted the waters. And the Israelites became free.
One of the scholars I read this week, Carlos F. Cardoza-Orlandi, pointed something important out about this story. When we read about the Israelites and the Egyptians, especially the Pharaoh and the army, we are reading about two groups of people with what Cardoza-Orlandi calls fundamentally "asymmetrical relationships." One group had resources and power that could drastically overwhelm the capabilities of the other. One group, in fact, had power even of life and death over the other. It becomes clear, then, that one of the most important features about God in the story of Exodus is that God is deeply invested in helping the Israelites even out the asymmetrical nature of their relationship with the Pharaoh who enslaved them.
In this part of the story, the first thing God does to help the outnumbered and out-resourced Israelites is give them a buffer of protection. God is shown to be present with the people in two ways, first as an angel, and then as this mysterious pillar of cloud or fire. It was both depending on the time of day. This is such a strange visual description that I have a hard time imagining what this would look like in real life. Would it be something like a tornado swirling in one spot or maybe a dark and menacing cumulonimbus cloud smoothly shifting across the sky ahead of their frightened band of travelers? Would it look like a bolt of lightning trapped in time or a trail of lava snaking towards the ground, pointing them forward, away from Egypt into the as yet to be promised land? Or could it have been a dense fog that wrapped them up, slowing the advance of Pharoah's army behind them? The story that has been passed on to us does not go into such details... it just states that God surrounded them, protecting them and leading them to safety. This is a divine defensive move.
The people of Israel understood that God would do more than just defend them from the ones who pursued them. They also understood that God would go on the offensive because they believed that God had little patience for tyrants. A scholar I read this week, Casey Thornburgh Sigmon, said that a tyrant is a ruler who acts with no concern or respect for checks and balances to their power. Pharoah, who up to this point has enslaved people who were once neighbors, ordered the death of children at their birth, and the drowning of children who have survived birth, is a tyrant. A tyrant cares not for justice but only for power and loyalty. A tyrant will murder children to maintain power and chase after impoverished slaves with chariots. A tyrant hoards all the resources and harms others to maintain power. A tyrant would never share a box at a baseball. A tyrant would choose to build the fence higher.
If you are the descendant of people who have been enslaved... if you have witnessed the abuse of an empire... if you know what it is like to have little say in how you construct your life or even if you will have the chance to fully live, you can probably imagine why the ancient Israelites assumed that only God could knock a tyrant like the Pharoah down a peg. The pharaoh had weapons of war and horses that could quickly overcome a person on foot. They barely had clothes on their back and food to eat. They were no match for pharaoh. But, the story tells us that God was.
If we remember the ancient stories of creation, God once molded life itself out of the watery depths. God breathed into mud and created humanity. In this story, scholar Anathea Portier-Young notes that God breathes across the water again, and creates anew, this time, creating a path by which the Israelites can escape Pharoah. This is how we know God is powerful enough to defeat a tyrant. Chariots cannot overcome this God. This God can move the seas. This God can tear down all the fences. Now everybody can watch the baseball game. Well, not everybody. The Egyptians, so enmeshed with a society enriched by slavery, so loyal to a cruel Pharoah that they repeat his cruelty, with hearts hardened, they follow Pharoah to chase the Israelites down the path. The Egyptians do not make it to dry land. They become stuck and the water falls down around them, with God shown to be destroying them just as definitively as God save the Israelites.
I must admit, this is a hard part of the story for me. Surely God could have found a way to save the Israelites without destroying Pharoah's army quite so completely? We have been sharing the story of Egypt's cruelty and comeuppance for generations. Part of me wonders if people needed to hear that the Egyptians were particularly cruel, thereby deserving destruction, in order to explain the horrors of slavery. In this story, where God has hardened their hearts, it makes sense that they could continue be so cruel to their neighbors, even after witnessing God's great power. It may make the tragedy of this story easier to bear if it is part of a plan. I read a scholar this week who suggested one more way to understand this story. Carlos F. Cardoza-Orlandi suggested that this story exists as a reminder that liberation isn't always complete at the edge of the sea. While the Israelites made it to the other side, many people were not able to follow. Perhaps the next step in our Divine story is to find a way, with God, to get everyone safely across the water.
At the beginning of this sermon, I told you about a series of images I admire, images that show a progression of supposedly equal tools with unequal outcomes that becomes a set of tools tailored to the people most in need of help that then shifts into an image of liberation, where no one has barriers to access great joy. What I've also learned is that the artist of the newest image, Angus Maguire, left a blank fourth image in the set. He has invited viewers to imagine what would be the next step in a just world after the fence has been torn down. Maybe it's that everyone joins the game. Maybe it's that the three people go get a bunch of friends to join them in their watching. Maybe it's some other possibility that I can't imagine yet. Maybe the story of the crossing of the sea has another block for us to fill in, with God's help. We have a similar invitation to imagine a next step beyond this piece of liberation. Our question now is how can we work with God to make sure our liberation doesn't hinge on someone else's destruction. That's how we truly help build a future worthy of God's name.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources while writing her sermon:
Casey Thornburgh Sigmon: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3403
Carlos F. Cardoza-Orlandi, "Proper 19," from Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year A Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013)
Anathea Portier Young: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2179
A great discussion of the graphic I talked about at the beginning of the sermon:
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.