Sunday, September 28, 2014

Ordinary 26A -- September 28, 2014

At The Water’s Edge

Exodus 14:10-14, 21-29
10As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites looked back, and there were the Egyptians advancing on them. In great fear the Israelites cried out to the Lord. 11They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? 12Is 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 than to die in the wilderness.”
13But Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. 14The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.
21Then 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.”
26Then 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.
In 1933, Martin Nieimoller, a German pastor, was a part of delegation of religious leaders who met with Adolph Hitler.  Nieimoller stood at the back of the room and observed Hitler closely.  He didn’t say anything during the meeting.  Later, when his wife asked what he had learned about the Nazi leader, Nieimoller said, “I discovered that Herr Hitler is a terribly frightened man.”
We observe another terribly frightened man in today’s text.  Pharaoh is also a very frightened man, and history has taught us that frightened leaders are apt to become ruthless. Especially when they believe there aren’t enough good things to go around.  They decide they must try to have them all.[1]
Last week, we heard about Joseph and his imprisonment in Egypt.  While in prison, Joseph becomes useful to Pharaoh thanks to his gift for interpreting dreams.  After Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams as a prediction of a coming famine, Pharaoh puts Joseph in charge of managing the monopoly on food that Egypt has amassed. 
The famine is long and severe, and the peasants run out of food.  On behalf of Pharaoh, Joseph says to people looking for food, “What’s your collateral?”  The peasants give up their land for food, and then the next year, they give up their cattle.  By the third year of the famine, the peasants have run out of collateral except for themselves.  And that is how the children of Israel become slaves – through an economic transaction with the government of Egypt.  The only option to slavery is for the peasants to starve.  By the end of Genesis 47, Pharaoh owns all the land except that which belongs to the priests.  And like the shrewd politician he is, Pharaoh only leaves the priests alone because he needs somebody to bless him (Gen. 47.13-26).
God created the world as good.  The Bible begins with a liturgy of God’s abundant provision for all of creation.  But by the end of Genesis, the fear of “not enough” has set in with Pharaoh’s hoarding of food, land and, ultimately, Abraham’s descendents. Pharaoh’s ruthlessness is born of out dreams of scarcity.  For the first time in the Bible, someone says, “There’s not enough.  Let’s get everything.” 
By the time we get to our text today in Exodus, the Israelites had been enslaved for more than 400 years.  I think the fact is worth thinking about for a moment.  400 years is longer than our country has been in existence, longer than any of us could probably trace our own family’s ancestry, long enough that the Hebrews likely had no memory of freedom. They had learned how to cope by this time, but generations of experience had pretty much stomped out any dreams among God’s people of living any other way.
There’s nothing sadder than a situation in which people have not only pretty much given up on the idea that anything good can happen to them, but have also forgotten what goodness looks like.  When people are oppressed or imprisoned for a very, very long time, they slowly, bit by bit, lose the ability to hope for something beyond the small life to which they’ve become accustomed.   Hope requires the creativity and imagination to envision something better beyond what we can see.  Slaves and prisoners eventually lose the ability to imagine that they deserve any other sort of life, and that lack of imagination suffocates all hope.
But slavery didn’t become normative only for the Israelites.  Slavery had become a way of life for Pharaoh as well.   Both the Egyptians and the Israelites have become bound up by fear.  Pharaoh is fearful of losing control what he perceives as limited resources, and the Israelites are fearful of their master.  All of the later chapters of Genesis and the first 13 chapters of Exodus are set against a backdrop of cultural anxiety and fear.
 It is in this hopelessness that God decides to act.  God remembers the promise God made to Abraham.  God sees the suffering of the people -- not only the suffering of the Israelites, but also the crippling anxiety of Pharaoh.  And we can see in this story that liberation is entirely God’s idea.  God’s imagination is larger than human dreams.  And we see God’s creative redemption at work in Exodus.  First, God captures the imagination of Moses.  Once Moses captures God’s vision of freedom and abundance, Moses continue to hold that vision in front of those who have completely forgotten how to dream, including Pharaoh.   Which isn’t the easiest job in the world to do.  But Pharaoh finally relents and that is where our story begins today, with the Israelites on the banks of the Red or Reed Sea.
In front of them is nothing but water with endless wilderness beyond, and coming up behind them is the entire Egyptian military led by Pharaoh.  And in their panic, it occurs to the Israelites that they didn’t ask for this.  As far as they are concerned, this trip was all Moses’ idea, so they throw all their anger and sarcasm at him:   Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? 12Is 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 than to die in the wilderness.”
Freedom wasn’t the Israelites’ idea, but it wasn’t up to Moses either. God imagined more for God’s people then they could imagine for themselves.  None of them were operating from a place of faith.  All they had was fear and a growing desire to go back to something that wasn’t good, but a life they understood.
Slavery seems better to the Israelites than to die on the banks of the Red Sea – either by drowning or at the hands of the Egyptian army fast approaching.   This is not the first time they have been unable to see a future beyond their immediate fear.  And it won’t be the last.  The Israelites will keep murmuring and doubting and falling into despair all the way through the wilderness and into the Promised Land.  Moses will keep holding God’s vision before them.  And over time, the memories of slavery in Egypt will be held together with memories of God’s liberation. 
And so it is for us.  Sometimes we prefer the misery we know to the mystery we can’t begin to imagine.  We are like the Israelites, standing at the water’s edge, wondering if it’s too late to turn back around and make a deal with Pharaoh.  We depend upon our excellent coping skills to deal with anxiety as best we can.  But God hasn’t created God’s people to cope, but to flourish.  So out of grace and love, God will part the sea for us if we muster up enough gumption to push on through the mud.  And sometimes, maybe most of the time, God doesn’t even wait for us to get a grip.  We’ll be pushed out into the wilderness despite ourselves. 
But we have to experience liberation for ourselves to believe God’s freedom is real.  Nobody can convince you that everything will be ok, anymore than the people believed Moses.  The children of Israel had to experience God’s grace for themselves, over and over again, in crossing the sea, in seeing Pharaoh defeated, in seeing manna every morning and water springing forth from a rock.  They had to live through their loss of certainty about knowing to expect.  Grace came to them as loss and bewilderment, and sometimes that’s how we experience grace, too.  We have to live through loss and then learn to see it as the deliverance it often is.  The longer we live, the easier it becomes to see God’s grace, but it is never, ever easy to receive it.

Pharaoh could not see that having control of everything would never save him.  After the plagues, he told Moses just to go and take his people out of Egypt.  But the scarcity narrative of Pharaoh’s empire could only be defeated by the power and goodness of God.  When the Israelites make their escape, instead of turning back to Egypt to rebuild a new society based on freedom and justice, Pharaoh and his army foolishly follow into the water. The chariots’ wheels become clogged in the sea bottom and Egyptian drivers cry out, “Let us flee from the Israelites for YHWH is fighting for them.”  Pharaoh had been given the opportunity to escape too.  But it’s too late.  Pharaoh lost his chance. 

Deliverance had come, but it came with a tremendous cost for everyone involved. There is a famous Jewish Midrash in which the rabbi says that God prevented the angels from celebrating the deaths of the Egyptians.  God’s heart was filled with pity for Pharaoh and the Egyptians, as well as pity for the anguish of the Israelites and their terror at the water’s edge.[2] 

So there is a stark choice in this story.  Who are we to be?  Will we stand with Pharaoh’s ethic of fear, greed and anxiety?  Or will we trust the God of abundance and believe we will be cared for? Where will we put our trust?  In our own ability to defeat our enemies and secure our own future?  Or with Jesus whose vision for all people is peace and the wholeness of God’s shalom?

Next week, we will receive one of the special offerings of our denomination, the Peace and Global Witness offering.   This is an offering specifically designed to witness to the Shalom of Jesus and the love of God for people who are suffering from violence, oppression and exploitation.  One of the places Presbyterian mission co-workers have been doing this kind of important work is in Columbia.  At the heart of Columbia’s struggle is a modern day version of Pharaoh’s land-grabbing.  As soon as someone with power wants a piece of land in Columbia, whether it is the government, wealthy land owners, or the cocaine industry, the campesinos (peasant farmers) are run off, harassed or even murdered.

The Presbyterian Church in Columbia is speaking out against this kind of oppression and violence, and has asked American Presbyterians to stand with their communities.  Presbyterian missionaries partner with Columbian Presbyterians to accompany people who have been displaced or have lost family members.  An American missionary wrote in a journal she kept during her time in Columbia about a young man named Yeison, “He wanted Americans to know how he felt.  He told me, ‘Not everything here is drugs and violence.  There are lots of us simply striving to live a good life.  Columbians like their life, they just want it to be more peaceful.”

Another mission worker writes, “We sent to the town of El Tamarindo after a young man was murdered.  There was a spokesperson for the man who claims he is the ‘real owner” of the land, the paramilitary thugs who ran the farmer off by destroying his crop and his home, the military that was called in as back-up, a cluster of campesinos who have all worked the land for years, and the grief-stricken father of the murdered young man.  We had nothing to offer the father except our presence, love and compassion, but in that moment of personal connection, it felt important, it felt like it helped.  It was what accompaniment is all about, and it was a moment we will never forget.”

It seems like such a small gesture, doesn’t it?  Such a small moment of peace in the face of almost overwhelming violence and injustice.  But when we are standing on the side of those who are vulnerable or oppressed, we know that we are on God’s side, not Pharaoh’s.

This week, I spent Tuesday night helping my sister in Christ, Jennifer Frayer Griggs and many others at Hot Metal Bridge serve what we called “The Fancy Table” to the folks who come for a meal at their ministry “The Table.”  Instead of Sloppy Joes or spaghetti served cafeteria style with paper plates, the people who came on Tuesday night sat down at tables covered with white tablecloths, set with real china and glasses, and were served a three course meal including steak and shrimp, prepared by local chefs and students.  As our staff of volunteers moved among the tables clearing plates and pouring refills of iced tea and coffee, the guests kept asking, “Why are you doing this?  What’s the special occasion?” And the truth is, there wasn’t really a reason or an occasion.  The whole idea was basically to love people who don’t experience whole-hearted love very often.

Jenn said that as one man was leaving, he said to her:  “That was wonderful.  For a few minutes there, I completely forgot I was homeless.” 

Such a small insignificant thing, right?  A couple minutes of forgetfulness. A steak dinner served by a bunch of earnest volunteers and high school kids.  Such a brief interlude in the on-going issues of homelessness and poverty and lack of mental health resources.  But when we stand on the side of people who are hungry and insist that God’s abundance is for everyone, we know we are on God’s side, not Pharaoh’s.

Truth is, most days it is almost impossible for me to know whether I am the oppressed or the oppressor.  Truth be told, most of us stand much more closely to the powers we can see with our eyes because we do not trust our hearts to be reliable.  Some days we are as fearful as Pharaoh and other days we are as faithless as the Israelites, but through all of it, God’s peace is held up to us as a new script, a better narrative for our lives.  God and God’s angels are rooting for us, guiding us, through deep seas and high mountains and too many days in the wilderness.  Let us wade into deep water together, trusting God will make a way out of no way.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, “The Liturgy of Abundance, The Myth of Scarcity,” in Christian Century, March 24, 1999.
[2] Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture, 215.