September 17, 2017 – 15th Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 14.19-31, 15.1b-11, 20-21
Last week we heard the story of Moses’s encounter with God in the wilderness. The upshot of that meeting was that God wanted Moses to go to Egypt and free the Israelites who had been enslaved there for 400 years. This morning, the story has the Israelites out of Egypt and on their way to freedom.
In between these two stories, God sent Moses to Pharaoh ten times with the message, “Let my people go, so that they may worship me.” Nine times Pharaoh refused. In response to each refusal, God sent a plague as a means of persuasion.
If you grew up going to Sunday school, you might remember the plagues. Things like swarms of frogs, gnats, flies, locusts. People and animals developed boils on their skin. The last plague was the death of all the Egyptian firstborn children.
When all the firstborn children died Pharaoh finally said, “Go!”
Moses had prepared the Israelites and they grabbed their bags and their kids and their animals and the bread that did not have time to rise and got out of town. All 600,000 plus of them.
After a few days, Pharaoh comes to his senses and says, “What were we thinking to let all that free labor leave our country?? How will our economy survive if we have to pay people to do work??” So Pharaoh and his battalion of slave catchers chase after the Israelites, who by this time, are out of Egypt and on the edge of the wilderness.
The Israelites notice a big dust storm coming approaching behind them and they are afraid. They said to Moses, “What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians as slaves than to die in the wilderness.”
But Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid, stand [still], and see the deliverance that the [Holy God] will accomplish for you today.” (Exodus 14.11-13a)
And the story you heard from Exodus 14 and 15 unfolds.
This story is the bedrock—the center of the Israelite faith—the witness to God’s saving power on their behalf—that gets told again and again. Every year, Jews tell this story of God’s liberating power on behalf of those who are oppressed. It’s a story which has provided hope and sustained communities in terrible times. Many of the spirituals born out of the enslavement of African-Americans in this country echo the story of the Exodus—the experience of being enslaved and the fervent hope that God would hear their cries and bring them out to freedom.
You’ve probably heard the spiritual “Go down, Moses / way down in Egypt’s land, / tell ole’ Pharaoh, ‘Let my people go.’”For the enslaved people who sang it in this country, it was a song of resistance—a song of promise—singing of the day when white owners would no longer be their masters and they would be free from the torture and economic exploitation of slavery.
Another example of this is the last hymn we’ll sing this morning, “Freedom is Coming.” It comes out of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and is a reminder that spiritual and political freedom are intertwined.
The Exodus story is a profound story of liberation. God notices the anguish of the Israelites who are enslaved, hears their cries, and responds with liberating power to bring them to freedom.
But this story is not without its difficulties.
One small phrase at the end: “God saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore.” (v30)
It’s an uncomfortable text to preach on the heels of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. And we don’t have to go back very far in many of our memories to the events of Hurricane Katrina. We’ve seen people clinging to their roofs in flood waters. We’ve seen people die because of drowning. We know in New Orleans in 2005, some neighborhoods were allowed to flood in order to save other neighborhoods that were deemed more desirable.
Exodus 14 doesn’t let us look away from those painful realities.
In this story, Egyptians die in order for Israelites to be free.
And then Moses and Miriam and all the people sing a victory song with all those dead bodies on the seashore.
There is midrash, that is, Jewish commentary, on this story that says the angels “sought to sing a hymn to God as the Egyptians were drowning [but] God rebuked them, saying, ‘While my creatures are drowning in the sea you would sing a hymn?’” It’s a poignant commentary by the rabbis to say that [God] “does not rejoice in the death of the wicked.”
That midrash doesn’t erase this text or solve the moral dilemma of the death of Egyptians for the freedom of Israelites. But maybe it gives us a little breathing room in the story.
One Biblical scholar clarifies that the Bible does not “claim…the stories it tells are paradigms for human action in all times and places.” That is, singing a song of victory while your enemies lie dead around you is not necessarily what the Bible says is the way we should conduct our lives or worship God. Instead, the Bible must be read carefully and thoughtfully, holding up its stories to the light of day and the dark of night, asking for the illumination and wisdom of the Spirit who continues to move in our world and our hearts.
The freedom of the Israelites is not without the reminder of how they got there and the continuing pain and brokenness in the world. A world in which they are blessed by God in order to be a blessing to all the people of the world.
Another difficulty many have found is with the miracle of the Red Sea itself. Can it really be that the Red Sea was split in two—a wall of water on both sides and a dry pathway for the liberated slaves to walk on? Was it a miracle of nature that caused a big east wind to blow combined with just the right tide height? Others have said that “Red Sea” is really a mistranslation and should instead be “Reed Sea”—designating a marshy, swampy area that could have been fairly easily navigated with a good pair of hip waders.
Instead of trying to explain what really happened I suggest we see the story as a master story—the kind of story that defines a community. It could be that if Moses was on facebook live, we would have seen the Red Sea divide—or maybe what really happened was a little less Cecil B. DeMille style but whatever it was got progressively bigger and bigger with the retelling. Whatever the video replay would show, “the most important thing for us to know is that” the Israelites were being pursued by the Egyptians and “something happened that they could explain in no other way than as divine intervention.” Maybe you’ve had that kind of experience in your life.
For the Israelites, it was a transformational experience. “Israel left Egypt as enslaved people fearing for their lives and emerged from the sea as a people who testified to God’s miraculous deliverance.
This kind of story provides a community with identity: this is who our God is. This is how God works on our behalf. This what happened to us because of God. This is what happened to our enemies. This is who we are because of it all.
This exact story—became the well-spring of revolutionary faith and practice from that first day of freedom right into our own contemporary world. Many struggles by people to shake off oppression have been envisioned on this story of the Israelite people being saved from Pharaoh by God. African-American slaves sang of it, Martin Luther King, Jr., preached on it, theologies of liberation around the world have been built on this story—built on the hope that the story of the Israelites would be our story as well.
This is why writers and singers get exiled and murdered in times of oppression. The stories they tell and the songs they sing have power—power that comes from giving voice to truth—power that gathers energy like a tiny mountain stream that eventually becomes part of the roar of the ocean—power to transform what is now, into what will be.
Dom Helder Camara, [pronounced Dom- with hardly any “m” Elder Ca’mara] a Roman Catholic archbishop in Brazil, was very involved in the movement of liberation theology—a theology that developed in the Catholic Church in Latin America in the 1950s and 60s expressing concern for the liberation of the oppressed. For many years Camara was an outspoken critic of the decades-long military dictatorship in Brazil and he was an advocate for social change. You may have heard the quote, “When I give food the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.” That was Archbishop Camara. He also wrote,
“When you are dreaming alone, it is only a dream.
When you are dreaming with others it is the beginning of reality.”
It is that kind of collective memory and story that shapes a community’s identity, that has the power to transform the way things are into the ways of God’s justice and peace. That’s the power of this story of God who liberates the Israelites.
Now what if we believed this was our story as well? And that just as the Israelites experienced themselves as the recipients of God’s liberating power, we will too. We and our larger community. Liberation from oppressions that hold us down personally—the addictions, wounds, and fears that keep us from being all that God intends for us to be—and liberation from the political and economic oppressions of racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, and so many other isms—that keep us all from living in the abundant life-giving ways that God intends for all of us.
And what if we told our stories of liberation—of getting to the edge of the sea and hearing the thunder of the chariot wheels behind us and just when we think we will never survive, the waters part and by God’s grace and God’s power there is a way when we thought there was no way at all. What if we told those stories as if our lives depended upon them—and that it was by God’s grace and power that we made it through.
A friend told me about a friend she knew years ago. This man saw prayer as a kind of energy—and he really saw it that way. When two people got together and prayed he could see the energy going out from them—going out of the tops of their heads, in fact.
This guy couldn’t go to church because when all those people got together and prayed…well, all that energy would send him flying out of the sanctuary.
Now what if we believed that really would happen? That there is so much power in what God is doing in our midst—that we were sent flying out of here to be part of leading people out of bondage, across the wilderness, through a way we never knew was there until we trusted God to take us there.
What if we trusted this could happen—that it is happening. What if we lived as if it was going on all around us?
What if we believed God works in history, in human life, in the realities of political and economic situations (that is, the real life in which we live)? What if we believed that God works in our history, transforming oppression into freedom?
And what if we lived as if God really did bring liberation to an oppressed community before us and that God continues to hear and respond to the cries of those who are stomped on and looked over and held back and cut down?
What if we did?
* * * *
 “Freedom is Coming” in Glory to God, #359, hymn notes.
 The Jewish Study Bible, eds., Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), Exodus 14.20 note, 135.
 Quoted in Barbara Lundblad, “Exodus 14.19-31,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 4, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Lundblad, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press), 4.
 Wilton, “Exodus 14.19-31,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press).
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H%C3%A9lder_C%C3%A2mara, accessed 16 September 2017.