September 17, 2017
The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA
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. 20It 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.
21 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. 22The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. 23The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. 24At 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. 25He 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.’
26 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.’ 27So 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. 28The 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. 29But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.
30 Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. 31Israel 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.
Exodus 14:19-31, NRSV
Happy New Year!
Every three years we are welcomed back to a new program year with this astonishing passage from the Book of Exodus. It usually coincides with our welcome back Sunday, and it usually happens during the week in which we remember the violent horror of September 11, 2001. What a context in which to hear this violent text from Exodus. And if the collectors of the canon had consulted me, I would surely have left parts of this story…..on the cutting room floor, and probably scheduled it for a nice sleepy week in August.
But here we are. And since this is Welcome Back Sunday, let me catch you up on the first few installments of this story that began in the late summer. We have been hearing from this fundamental story of our faith tradition in the Book of Exodus since the last Sunday in August. We started with the birth of Moses and the fearful Pharaoh’s decree to kill all of the newborn Hebrew boys in Egypt in an effort to stem the rising population of that immigrant class of slaves. Moses, of course, escaped his own decreed departure in a papyrus basket in the reeds of the river. The next week we heard the story of God’s call to Moses to free the Israelites. After hailing the attention of the shepherd Moses with a burning bush, God instructed Moses to free God’s people from generations of slavery. No small task. And when Moses asked God who he should say had sent him to upend Pharaoh’s entrenched structure of institutional slavery, God said tell them my name is: “I will be who I will be.” Eyeh asher eyeh. Or, “I am becoming who I am becoming.” Say it with me. God’s name: Eyeh asher eyeh.
And then last week we heard the story of how the Pharaoh’s refusal to release the Israelites prompted God to respond with 10 plagues, the last of which took the lives of every first born male, of every species, except, of course, the Hebrews. It is the story of the Passover. And so today’s story is the culmination of the last three weeks. The liberation of the Israelites by a Pharaoh who finally relented after losing his own son in the 10th plague. And Moses and his brother Aaron follow God’s lead and shepherd the Israelites to freedom.
But it is a costly freedom. Today’s violence is the third massacre in four weeks. First Pharaoh’s death decree. Then the 10 plagues. And now the brutal end of this monumental escape with the Red Sea swallowing the entire Egyptian army.
For full disclosure: the Revised Common Lectionary does offer an alternative text track for this fall. That is to say, we could have avoided these violent readings. We did not have to read Exodus, we could have read Track II instead. This week’s reading is from the very end of Genesis. And if we had chosen that track, today we would hear Joseph forgiving his brothers for selling him into a life of slavery and leaving him for dead.
Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?’ 16So they approached* Joseph, saying, ‘Your father gave this instruction before he died, 17“Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.” Now therefore please forgive us. Joseph wept when they spoke to him. 18Then his brothers also wept,* (Genesis 50:15-18)
This is a so much kinder and gentler release from bondage than the violent massacre we heard this morning.
Moses stretched out his hand over the sea… and as the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. 28The 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 survived. (Exodus 16:27-8)
And so every three years I am more than tempted to chuck Exodus and read Track II. To follow the God of Creation in Genesis rather than the God of Liberation in Exodus. Because, let’s face it, creation is fraught with growing pains and grounded in chaos, but liberation from institutional evil is almost always violent and costly! So very costly. There is just no peaceful easy way to free generations of slaves from bondage. Our own Civil War is still smoldering with every removal of every confederate statue and flag, with every familiar instance of racial profiling, even now in the twenty-first century.
But the thing that seems so very un….expected about the liberation story in Exodus, at least to those of us who hold on to God as the love of our lives, is that we do not want to think of our Redeeming Creator as such a Wholesale Destroyer. Despite all of the commentaries that justify the carnage in this event by saying that Pharaoh had it coming, he backed himself into this catastrophe. Even so, the God Who Is Becoming had a hand in it. And that just plain surpasses all understanding in my own theology, and in my own relationship with the living God.
But the text is all we have. So, having lost his own firstborn in the 10th plague, Pharaoh ordered the release of the Israelites from their 430 years of bondage. He summoned Moses and Aaron. And he said to them: “Go! and tell your God to bless me for my magnanimous decision to free God’s people.” So Moses and Aaron did just as Pharaoh had instructed them. They rounded up their people and led them, over 600,000 Israelite slaves and their children, out of Egypt. A stream of newly liberated people headed…….well, they weren’t quite sure where. But they were willing to follow Moses and Aaron, willing to follow the ones sent by “I am becoming what I am becoming.”
They followed to freedom. They followed to new life. They were, at last, free to a good home.
And here is where the two seemingly opposite lectionary tracks appointed for this morning are intimately connected. The reading says that the fleeing Israelites took with them the bones of Joseph. Bones they had been saving for 20 generations. Bones that surely made their escape a bit more arduous. But this story of the Exodus recalls, remembers, and literally advances the story of Joseph and his family. It binds the God of the Ancestors to the God of Liberation. This is not a new God, it is the new work of the ever-Becoming God. This is the next phase of the story, and it is built, clearly and intentionally on the story that has happened thus far. It is all connected. And so too, it tells us that God is always willing and able to open a new chapter in the life of the world.
Today’s story started with Joseph, the son of Jacob and Rachel, who fled his angry brothers and ended up as Pharaoh’s slave in Egypt….that was the start of the Israelites’ enslavement in Egypt. Joseph was the seed. And the last verse of the Book of Genesis reads: Joseph said to his brothers “I am about to die: but God will surely come to you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” So Joseph said to the Israelites: “when God comes to you, you shall carry up my bones from here.” And then Joseph died, at 110 years old. He was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt. And there ends the Book of Genesis.
But today’s story in the Book of Exodus is where we pick up the bones. Literally. And after 430 years, the children of Abraham, including the bones of Joseph are finally headed home. Note the time it takes to realize freedom, the time it takes for God’s justice to prevail: 430 years. Over 20 generations. Patience is a divine virtue.
So, the Israelites have been freed to follow Moses and Aaron out of Egypt. But not so fast, again Pharaoh has a change of heart. It’s a pattern with this Pharaoh. “What have we done, letting Israel leave our service?” he laments to his armed forces. We cannot simply let all of this slave labor go. And so Pharaoh, despite the loss of his own son in the 10th Plague, renegs on his decision to free the Israelites, and commissions his army and every chariot in the land to make haste to stop the mass exodus.
But by then, the God of ever-becoming had led the faithful followers through the wilderness to the bank of the Red Sea. It is not insignificant, I think, that God did not lead the Israelites over the dry land. Although that would have been a more direct route, as the scripture says. But the God of ever-Becoming thought that the Egyptians might catch up with the fleeing slaves and “ if the people face war, they will change their minds and return to Egypt.” So God, in an effort to avoid putting the people in a situation that would lead them to their own demise, chose to lead them over the much more difficult terrain, a rough and tumble wilderness that lead to the shore of a massive body of water which the congregation of hundreds of thousands of Israelites, had no logical way of crossing.
I am guessing that some of us have been on this long and circuitous journey to liberation with the God of ever-Becoming. God works in our own lives in the same way that God works in the world. After all, God is who God is….albeit becoming. And so we who have little experience with captivity and oppresses ion may hear this story in terms of our personal life situations. Which is all good. Indeed it is a story about the way God sets us free if we have the courage to follow and the faith to cross when the waters part.
But this story has a much more socially axiomatic understanding, as well. This is a story about the evil of institutionalized oppression. About the structures of evil that enslave and marginalize and absolutely exist in this world. And it is about the fate of those who support those structures, intentionally, or unintentionally. Whether you are the Pharaoh who makes the law of the land, or the chariot driver for whom support is just a day job. The pillars and the posts of such systems are coming down, one way or another.
The Rev. Dr. MLK Jr. preached a sermon on this text from Exodus in 1956 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (the seat of the Episcopal Diocese of New York) on the occasion of the Supreme Court decision in Brown versus the Board of education. The title of the sermon was “Death of Evil Upon the Seashore.” The sermon began like this:
“And Israel saw the Egyptians dead upon the seashore.”-Exodus 14:30
There is hardly anything more obvious than the fact that evil is present in the universe. It projects its nagging, prehensile tentacles into every level of human existence. We may debate over the origin of evil, but only the person victimized with a superficial optimism will debate over its reality. Evil is with us as a stark, grim, and colossal reality.
The evil of which Dr. King speaks is oppression and injustice. His sermon grounds this passage in the reality that there are systems of evil in our midst that will require earth shattering reconciliation. Such oppression and injustice is not just in our biblical canon, it is not just in the history of our civilization, and it is not in our rear view mirror. We live in a time when the mightiest empires in the world continue to marginalize and oppress and enslave the migrants in their domain. Whomever the migrant. Whatever the domain.
And so if I can get past the horses at the bottom of the sea, I can hear this story as a call to oppose and resist those institutions of oppression. To take stock of my life, my thoughts words and deeds, and see where I might be supporting injustice, even indirectly, even if that support is just part of my day job. We must all resist systemic evil in all ways. With all of our might. Because the God of Becoming is opposing and resisting even as we speak, and the water is wide.
Maybe the shocking violence in this morning’s story is necessary to get our attention. Maybe we need to know that such abject evil always bears an astronomical cost. Maybe this story is meant to be read as a cautionary fairy tale. A divine promise that freedom will always overcome. Even if it takes 20 generations, it will come. Because the God of Becoming is already on it.
On with whomever we are becoming!
© September, 2017 The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw
 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Sermon delivered May, 18, 1956. http://okra.stanford.edu/transcription/document_images/Vol03Scans/256_17-May-1956_The%20Death%20of%20Evil%20upon%20the%20Seashore.pdf The title and some of the text of this sermon was from the Rt. Rev. Phillips Brooks sermon “The Egyptians Dead Upon the Seashore.'”