Emmanuel Baptist Church
275 State St. Albany, NY 12210
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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation
Minister: Rev. Kathy J. Donley
Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
Rev. Kathy Donley
Scripture Lesson:Exodus 14:10-31
Nine-year-old Joey was asked by his mother what he had learned in Sunday School. “Well, Mom, our teacher told us how God sent Moses behind enemy lines on a rescue mission to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. When he got to the Red Sea, he had his engineers build a pontoon bridge, and all the people walked across safely. He used his walkie-talkie to radio headquarters and call in an air strike. They sent in bombers to blow up the bridge and all the Israelites were saved.”
“Now, Joey, is that REALLY what your teacher taught you?" his mother asked.
“Well, no, Mom, but if I told it the way the teacher did, you'd never believe it!”
Joey’s incredulity is typical of many modern people. The story of the Israelites crossing the sea seems like something out of an action film. And of course, some people of a certain age can tell you exactly how it happened, because they saw it in Cecil B Demille’s movie. Removing the story from the big screen, modern people look for natural explanations. Suggesting that the dry land is a natural function of regularly occurring tides and winds is one common explanation. In chapter 14, the sea is not named. In chapter 15, verse 4, it says that Pharaoh’s army is drowned in the Sea of Reeds. That’s what the Hebrew says. For centuries, almost all translations have rendered that as the Red Sea which is unfortunate, because most scholars, conservative and liberal agree that the Hebrew says Sea of Reeds. Making the translation more accurate does not do much to resolve the question of how this could happen. Mostly it gives archaeologists the joy of looking for bodies of water which might have had a lot of reeds on the Exodus route.
I much appreciate the work of translators and archaeologists and would not seek to diminish the validity of their vocations, but this story forms the core of Jewish identity and it has been the lasting narrative of hope and liberation for countless oppressed peoples in history. We will not tap into that power, by focusing on the mechanics of the crossing.
There’s another reason some of us have a hard time getting into this story. Most of us find it difficult to conceive of a situation that we could not alter or fix in some way. Most of us can pay our bills when they come due. Most of us enjoy relatively good health, and when illness does strike, we have access to doctors and medicine. We have resources, money in the bank, friends and family, insurance policies. In whatever mess we might find ourselves, we can usually do something to make it better. Most of us, modern North American Christians, rely more on the God who helps those who help themselves than on the God who rescues the truly helpless, the God who makes a way out of no way.
I wonder if recent events have helped us see ourselves as closer to the Israelites’ plight than we have imagined in the past? The images of flooded homes were in Houston and Florida, not distant Bangladesh or Indonesia this time. People of all income levels were displaced. Those with more money and resources were as powerless against the wind and water as everyone else.
Many of us are increasingly dismayed at a political climate whose obsession with power and profit tramples on justice and human rights once declared inalienable, and puts our cherished democracy at risk. Try as we might, we cannot seem to help ourselves out of this one. Perhaps this is an especially good time to recall this story.
It begins with great fear. Whatever courage the Israelites had summoned to left Egypt, it evaporated when they found themselves between the Egyptian army and the sea. They cry to Moses, “Did you bring us out here to die? We should have stayed in Egypt.”
Ephrem the Syrian was a fourth century scholar with some fascinating, still relevant, insights. Reflecting on this passage, he says that humanity has an amazing capacity to seek death in preference to submitting to God. They say to Moses, “Didn’t we tell you to leave us alone, that it would be better to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness?” The Israelites would rather return to slavery than risk attaining the freedom that God offers.
In July, I heard Javier, a young theologian from Columbia, explain what he had just witnessed in his country. There was an opportunity for a peace agreement with the FARC, a highly organized group of rebels. The FARC has been engaged in bloody guerrilla warfare with the government for the last 52 years. Five years of negotiations led to a proposed peace agreement which leaders on both sides agreed to. This was momentous. The next step was a referendum. Javier said that the referendum reduced a very complex agreement to a yes or no question. Because they did not understand the agreement, the people looked to their leaders for a sense of how to vote. The church leaders honed in on some terms of the agreement that privileged women and sexual minorities as particular victims of war. They heard those provisions as identity politics which they rejected. So, they told people to vote No, and the referendum was defeated.
Javier said that in the moment, he learned that his culture privileges death, that his people would rather keep having more violence, more atrocities, more death, than take a risk for peace. He was appalled to recognize that this mentality pervades the churches in his country. Listening to Javier, I could not help but think of our country which has learned to see gun violence on our streets and in our schools as normal, which spends more money on prisons than education, which prefers incarceration to treatment for mental illness and addiction. I expect that you have heard that this week the Senate approved a $700 Billion bill to support the military and weapons of war while at the very same time claiming that we cannot afford to provide for health care for all our citizens.
Perhaps the first step to relying on God instead of ourselves for liberation is recognizing our resistance to change, acknowledging our bondage to what is known and normal in our lives, repenting of our amazing capacity to choose death instead of life.
The second pivotal moment in the Israelite’s liberation comes at verse 13, when Moses tells them “Do not be afraid, but stand firm and see what the Lord can do.”
Standing firm means not running away, not trying to go back to Egypt, not trying to return to the way things used to be. It also means not giving up, not giving in to fear and simply running into the sea. Standing firm means holding fast, unwavering, watching for God’s new way to emerge. Sometimes that new way will require courage. Think about the first Israelite to step out onto the newly dry land. That person might also expect to be the first one to drown if the water came rushing back. Most of the time, the new way will seem more difficult than what we already know.
I was very privileged this week to hear John Lewis speak. John Lewis grew up very poor in Alabama in a family with 9 children. From an early age, when he noticed segregation and racial discrimination, and asked his parents and grandparents about it, they would say “That’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way. Don’t make trouble.”
On Tuesday, he talked about the first time he was arrested. He has now been arrested about 45 times, the last 5 times as a member of Congress. But the first time, he was a young black man, a seminary student, occupying a whites-only lunch counter in Nashville. He said, “The first time I was arrested, I felt like I had crossed over. I felt liberated. I felt free.”
For John Lewis, standing firm meant staying in place at that lunch counter despite the animosity of those around him. It meant ignoring his parents’ warning not to get in the way. That hardship was his door into liberation. Today he says that he is trying to inspire another generation of people to find a way to get in the way, to make good trouble.
“The first time I was arrested, I felt like I had crossed over. I felt liberated. I felt free.”
To recap: there is acknowledging our resistance, our profound capacity to choose the ways of death instead of taking a risk on life and there is standing firm which might create hardships while we wait for God to act. And then, we might ask, how long does this liberation take?
Crossing the sea seems to take just one night. It is not instantaneous, but not unreasonably long either – as long as we just consider the events of chapter 14. But if we take a step back, we might remember that Moses is 80 when he goes to Pharaoh and that the oppression of his people began before he was born. We might remember that these people, even after this unexpected deliverance, will complain about how things used to be in the good old days in Egypt for the next 40 years.
This is the hardest part, I think, recognizing that liberation, redemption, freedom doesn’t happen overnight or all at once. It takes time, a lot of time, too much time for those of us who believe that justice delayed is justice denied. The hardest part of relying on God might just be trusting that God will act in time.
John Lewis also told one other story. He talked about the being part of the Freedom Riders. In 1961, he rode a Greyhound bus into the town of Rock Hill, South Carolina seated next to a white student. When the two of them exited the bus, and tried to enter a whites-only waiting room, members of the Klan attacked and beat them, leaving them in a pool of blood. Forty-eight years later, a man named Elwin Wilson came into Congressman Lewis’ office in Washington. The man was in his 70’s. His son Chris was with him.
The man said, “Mr. Lewis, I’m one of the people who beat you and your seatmate. I had been a member of the Klan. I want to apologize. Will you accept my apology? Will you forgive me?”
The son started crying. Wilson started crying. He hugged Lewis. Lewis hugged him back. And Lewis started crying.
Lewis said, “It was a moment of grace, a moment of forgiveness and a moment of reconciliation, and that's what the movement, that's what the struggle was all about."
Wilson’s son Chris said, “He was a hard person, growing up. He embarrassed me. I am proud he has come here today and done this. I have been hoping for him for 48 years."
Forty-eight years! The hardest part of relying on God might just be trusting that God will act in time, that liberation will happen, that it will bear the fruit of reconciliation and forgiveness, that the struggle will be worth it.
All I know is this: When the Israelites were out of options, caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, God brought life and a future out of the bondage of slavery and death.
So, in light of this story which has sustained God’s people through millennia of persecution and hatred and rejection and oppression, let us take to heart the ancient words of Moses: “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you.” Amen.
 As summarized by Lisa D. Maugans Driver in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 2, Lent through Eastertide, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. (Atlanta: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2010), p. 330.