24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 11, 2011
William G. Carter
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.
Of all the texts of scripture! On September 11, a day when we remember three thousand innocent deaths, we hear about an entire army wiped out by God. They were doing what they were commanded, chasing after run-away slaves. Moses did what God commanded, and a number of Egyptian soldiers known only to God were killed. I’m not sure this text fits for today.
Two days after the flood waters returned to northeastern Pennsylvania, I’m not sure the text fits for us. We hear of deep waters parted by the power of God; but God didn’t part the waters of the Susquehanna. I spent some time yesterday surveying the flood damage. Moses was not there. There was no dry land for anybody to walk upon.
So what will we do with this famous Bible story? I think we need to decide up front it has nothing to do with September 11. It has no relation whatsoever to the deep waters of Pennsylvania’s floods. And if we can decide it has nothing to do with those two events, we can listen for what it might say to those two events.
I mean, this is one of the big moments of scripture. The young nation of Israel was getting out of hell. For generations, they were enslaved in a foreign land. Great-grandfather Joseph had done well in Egypt, fending off a life-threatening famine. He had earned the trust of the Pharoah of his day and settled things with his brothers. When Joseph died, his family placed him in an Egyptian coffin and laid him to rest, with the proviso that, should they ever get to the Promised Land, they would take his bones with them.
But then you remember what happened: there came a new Pharoah who did know Joseph. Joseph’s family had multiplied, never quite assimilated. Pharoah raised suspicions of them, inciting fear, claiming they were a threat, and ultimately enslaving them. The Israelite family became a major provider of discount labor. Even then, Pharoah was threatened. “Throw their newborn boys into the river,” he decreed.
One Jewish mother refused and hid her baby in a basket. The princess found him, claimed him, and raised him as a royal child. He was named “Mosheh,” or Moses, meaning, “We took him out of the water.” You know this story – of how as a royal adult, he killed an Egyptian who was beating a slave. Then, on the run, he settled among shepherds. All the while, God was listening to the Israelite slaves, taking note of their affliction.
One day, he stumbled upon a bush burning but not consumed. It was a strange sight. From the bush came a Voice. The Voice called him by name, “Moses, Moses!” And God said, “I am weary of how my people suffer. I’m going to bring them out of their oppression. I’m going to set them free. And here’s how I am going to do it, Moses: I am sending you. Tell old Pharoah to let my people go.”
You know this story. So fast-forward eleven chapters, ten plagues, and a handful of Moses’ excuses. There is this moment, this event, after the tenth and final plague, when Pharoah said, “Moses, take your flock and your herd, and be gone.” The people of Israel packed up and left, pausing only long enough to write down the Passover liturgy in chapters twelve and thirteen.
That brings us to chapter fourteen, the text for today. It’s a big moment. The storyteller says God was sneaky. God didn’t take the people in a straight line, up the coast. No, God made the people travel in a “roundabout way” (13:18). God thought, “If these people face a war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt,” and indeed, they were ready for war. But God wanted nothing of a war.
What God wanted – and this is very important to the story – God wanted people to know who he is. God wanted everybody to know. Wanted the Egyptians to know! Oh, God’s people would be released; but there would also be a revelation.
Did you notice that in the hearing of the text? God is giving all the orders. God is doing all the action. God is protecting his own people from an even worse fate. God is refusing to let the people return to Egypt, and fall back into what was both comfortable and oppressive. God is the One who sends the wind. God is the One who parts the waters. God is the One who refuses to let his people be destroyed, and thus destroys the destroyers.
With that, here’s the three-fold punch line at the end of the story: (1) the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians, (2) Israel saw the great work that the Lord did, (3) the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord. That is, it changed them.
Of all the things we can take away from that story, it’s a story all about God. No matter what else is going on down here on the ground, God is really the One who is working in the midst of it all. This is one of those moments when Israel remembers what kind of God it is that they actually have. They have a God who saves them. A God who rescues them. A God who changes people in the midst of horrible, terrifying moments; and when the rough waters settle down, they are different than they used to be.
Here’s one of the proofs that I have that God exists: a lot of bad things could have gone a lot worse that they actually did. The levee might have broken in Kingston. The fourth plane might have hit the Capitol. There are these unruly moments in our lives, these enormous events, when nature surges out of control or people do their absolute worst to one another. We know that.
I still remember how immobilized I was on 9-11. The kids had gone on off the school bus, so I called the senior center to check on some details for a program I was scheduled to do on that sunny Tuesday. The lady on the other end of the phone was hysterical. “Don’t come,” she said, “because that plane hit the building,” and she hung up. I turned on CNN to see what she was talking about. It was 9:02 a.m. and the commentators were yammering on. A minute later, I watched as Flight 175 hit the second tower of the World Trade Center. In that instant, we knew that something really terrible was going on.
You have your memories of that day, as I have mine. I remember how this church was full on the Sunday following, all of us praying the Psalms and hoping in God. A week after that, attendance was back to normal. I don’t know where they went. Maybe they were disappointed that God refused to serve as their good luck charm. Maybe they were too shattered, too shocked, to continue on. I don’t know.
But I saw how we changed. I remember how we decided as a church that we would pray for everybody, and not merely whoever we knew. I remember with pride how church people here decided that they would not be swept up into xenophobic hatred. “Let’s help to sponsor a refugee family,” we said. When we discovered it would be an innocent family from a suspicious country, we did what we could to make them welcome.
I’m proud of how we changed in response to that horrible moment. We welcomed the love of God and we prayed for its increase. We asked for the justice of God, and we began to understand that human justice is not always the same thing as God’s justice. You see, God’s justice always wants to make things right. Israel was enslaved and beaten down in Egypt, and God said, “That will not stand.” So with a mighty hand and outstretched hand, God brought his own people out of their affliction.
That’s what Israel remembers about getting out of Egypt. It was all God’s doing. What they had to do was whatever God wanted them to do. God said, “Pack up,” and they did. God said, “Eat your bread in a hurry,” and they did. God said, “Follow me,” and that’s what the people of God still do. Liberation must be lived out day by day.
I walked in a mud-sodden church sanctuary yesterday. The First United Presbyterian Church of West Pittston is pumping out ten feet of water from the basement. They had four feet or so of mud in the sanctuary. My friend Jim Thyren is the pastor there. If all I had said to him was, “I will pray for you,” I wouldn’t be much of a friend. He pointed me to the dumpster pile, and I started picking up waterlogged pew cushions, some muddy Bibles, a few hymnals that have lost their voice.
It is a deeply horrible moment for that congregation, and it could have been a lot worse. These floods, these 9-11 moments, these passages out of Egypt have the power to disrupt our lives for a very long time. But they also reveal who we are and what we really do believe. If they lead us to believe the world is going down the sewer, then let’s confess we have given up on God and be done with it.
What I believe is that God is right here, in the midst of every terrifying event, calling on us to follow his ways, to love one another, to build trust with one another, to work for one another’s benefit, and thus to glorify God’s holy name.
One of the preachers that I most respect is a Methodist bishop in Alabama. He was quoted in last week’s issue of Christianity Today, when the editors asked how September 11 has affected us. He said,
September 11 has changed me. I'm going to preach as never before about Christ crucified as the answer to the question of what's wrong with the world. I have also resolved to relentlessly reiterate from the pulpit that the worst day in history was not a Tuesday in New York, but a Friday in Jerusalem when a consortium of clergy and politicians colluded to run the world on our own terms by crucifying God's own Son.
He’s right about that. God sent his own Son to the human race, and we killed him. Yet once again, that supremely horrible moment could have gone much, much worse. When we killed his son, God did not wipe us out once and for all. Rather, God turned that moment on its head to forgive us, to set us free. That, friends, is our saving. That is our hope. It pushes us to go back to Jesus, to give him a second look, to let his life infuse our lives.
The way of God is not afflict one another. The way of God is not to allow one person to go hungry. The way of God is not to remain isolated on our high mountain when there are people in the valleys without clean water. The way of God is not to chase away those whose diseases separate them from us. The way of God is to welcome the changes that God would effect to make us more like Jesus his Son.
The way of God is to follow God out of Egypt, to welcome God’s freedom from a world run on our own terms. What we need is a world full of mercy, a kingdom where forgiveness is proclaimed from the throne. This is the one mandatory condition for us to treat one another with justice: God’s justice is always drenched and saturated with God’s mercy.
That is the power that saves us, the power that sets us free to live as God’s children. It is power that is available to us for transforming the world . . . unless we are still stuck in Egypt.
(c) William G. Carter
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