Sermon of the Week:
You Want Us to Go Where?
Week seven of a nine part sermon series:
I Feel Seen: Ancient Stories and Modern Wisdom
Keywords: Moses, Parting of the Red Sea, Lord will Make a Way, Big Wave Surfing. #pcusa
Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-733469. All rights reserved.
One of the magazines I read regularly is The Atlantic
and there was an article there on Saturday that took my breath away.
Maggie Mertens published a story called “This Woman Surfed the Biggest Wave of the Year”
and it detailed the new world record in what’s called the “Big Wave Awards”
a major surfing competition that draws athletes from all over the world.[i]
Merten’s article described how, this year,
the Brazilian big-wave surfer Maya Gabeira
conquered a 73 and a half foot wave off the cost of Nazaré, Portugal,
far exceeding her own previous record of a 68 foot wave,
and a full 3 and a half feet bigger than the mens’ XXL Biggest Wave award winner,
Kai Lenny, at 70 feet.
These are not “normal” waves.
This isn’t what you imagine people doing in their free time in coastal California,
where they just drop work for the afternoon,
toss on their wetsuit
and drive down to the beach to catch a few waves, dude.
73 feet is more than 7 stories tall,
powerful and fast,
a force of nature you’d instinctively try to avoid, right,
if you weren’t the kind of adventure athlete that these athletes are.
Before I saw the article yesterday,
I didn’t know that big wave surfing was a thing,
but of course it is.
They have different categories,
Ride of the Year,
even Wipeout of the Year,
but the Biggest Wave Award is the top prize,
and Gabeira took it to new heights this year.
Mertens’ article was primarily about discrepancies in the sport between male and female surfers,
and that’s another sermon for another day,
but what grabbed my attention was the video of Gabiera’s effort.
It was at the top of the article, so you can’t miss it.
One minute she is a speck on the seven-story-tall wall of water
and then it comes crashing down around her
and, if you’re like me, you gasp as you watch it.
You get a sense of how powerful the seas are
and how profoundly terrifying they can be
when there is an actual wall of water coming down on you.
It was so timely, actually,
as I’ve been thinking about this story in the Exodus
the culmination of what is really THE story of the Hebrew Bible.
This reading takes place in the darkest hour,
the turning point in the narrative.
With Pharaoh and the army behind them
and the sea in front of them,
the Israelites seem to have come, at last,
to the place of extinction.
What must that have felt like for the Hebrews?
We’ve done what we could to recreate it.
I remember this story, quite vividly, from my childhood,
mainly because I watched cartoons about it
during Sunday School.
They’re kind of seared into my memory.
There’s Moses bravely looking at the water, lifting high his hands
the winds blowing, the water obeying…
The seas part and there’s what looks like a cavernous trench
just wide enough to accommodate everyone.
They rush through, as do the chasing army..
They make it across, Moses does his thing with his arms again
the waters go back to normal…and its done.
The tone, triumphant.
The carnage in the water, minimized…
I mentioned we were kids, right.
Even though some stories of the Hebrew Bible are not really all that kid friendly
how can you avoid learning about the major stories,
particularly the one that has become THE defining event of our religious ancestors…
so they just elided over that part
and instead there was celebration:
that the violence was no more
that they can finally rest, finally have some peace
finally find freedom, as they turn to a new future….
all of that truly a good thing
even if it comes at an unthinkably high cost.
That was the childhood telling of the story,
for me, at least.
As we were talking about this at Bible Study this week
many people recalled the 1956 movie The Ten Commandments,
which might be the most famous version of it on the big screen.
The Ten Commandments was an epic movie,
more than three and a half hours long.
Do you remember the scenes
as the Israelites leave Egypt?
Joshua, riding on a horse
and gathering the people to get them ready…
the movie has such vivid colors and textures.
In the film, as the Israelites are leaving the pyramids behind them,
they don’t get far until they encounter
the sea in front of them and Pharaoh’s army coming quickly behind.
They have fled slavery of Egypt
and find themselves trapped—
by watery chaos
that blocks the way forward
and a vengeful army
closing in behind them.
In the film the confusion and fear are apparent.
There are animals running around;
women and babies crying,
and men planning mutiny against Moses.
You can also see the dark cloud of God beginning to form on the horizon.
As Yul Brynner,
a pillar of fire appears, blocking the Egyptian army from advancing.
The music soars as Charlton Heston,
stands on a rock overlooking the water,
and claims in a mighty voice,
“the Lord of Hosts, will do battle for us.”
And then he turns to face the wind,
raises his staff
and spreads his arms
as the dark cloud plunges into the sea
and the water is divided in half to form a dry middle ground.
Vintage cinematography at its best.
One colleague, Heather Davis, who was reflecting on this passage herself,
remembered that the children’s bible she received as a kid
had a picture of this Exodus story on the cover.[ii]
“Of all the images that the publishers could have chosen,” she wrote,
“this was the one:
a picture of Hebrew children in the foreground in tan and white robes,
blue head scarves and walking sticks,
carrying lambs on their shoulders
—crossing the on dry ground next to a wall of water.
Why not the image of Noah and God’s beautiful rainbow?
Why not Adam and Eve
naming animals in the garden and eating oranges?
Or why not the image of Jesus welcoming
and blessing the children after his Sunday sermon?”
That same Bible, Davis says,
still has the same illustration on the cover. I checked Amazon.
Perhaps this story, the parting of the Red Sea,
was chosen because
“both Jews and Christians
know this story above all the stories of the Hebrew Bible,” she said.
It is a story we tell in Sunday school and travelling day camp.
It is THE story told at the tables of Jewish families on Shabbat.
This is exodus,
a way out,
which is quite literally what exodus means.
Here, at first glance however,
the water is a barrier to Israelites freedom.
An impassable obstacle of uncertainty and hopelessness.
How can the exodus continue?
How can the people reach a land of milk and honey,
a land of freedom and abundance,
a land where parents are no longer slaves
and children are not plagued to being thrown into the waters of the Nile?
Hemmed in and panicked I imagine,
the newly freed people of God find themselves
trapped by dangerous waters in front, and dangerous chariots behind.
Any way you look at it: the way out is hidden.
The way out is not clear.
Every direction seems like the way of death.
I know we have all been there.
In places where there seems no way out.
A job loss; where is the way out?
A failed marriage; where is the way out?
Death of a beloved family member; where is the way out?
Cancer, illness, stroke, hemorrhage; where is the way out?
A pandemic; where is the way out?
A broken system that
for hundreds of years
has prioritized one race over others; where is the way out?
It is in verses just prior to what we read this morning,
where we hear Moses tell the people that line Charlton Heston dramatized,
“Have no fear!
Stand by and witness the deliverance
which the Lord will work for you today;
for the Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again.
The Lord will battle for you; hold your peace!”
And right THERE you see the power of THIS story
wrapped up, as it is, in difficult imagery:
“Witness the deliverance which the Lord will work for you today;”
in other words, the Lord will provide the way out.
Another place you see this story told in amazing and dramatic ways,
is in some powerful African-American spirituals.
That makes sense, right?
Our siblings in the African American church
resonate deeply with this promise
of the Lord providing the way out.
They read this Exodus story,
and they saw within it an important intersection with their own story.
They knew it was primarily a story about an enslaved and oppressed people,
and so they re-told the story in such a way
as to give one another hope,
hope for a future of freedom
and an end to violence levied against them.
Take, for instance, spirituals like Mary Don’t You Weep,
The chorus of which goes like this:
Oh, Mary don’t you weep, don’t you mourn/
Oh, Mary don’t you weep, don’t you mourn/
Pharaoh’s army got drowned/
Oh, Mary don’t you weep.
Even though the first time I heard that song
it was the amazing 1972 rendition by the inimitable Aretha Franklin,
I highly recommend looking it up on youtube…
the roots of Mary Don’t You Weep go back way earlier than that,
to well before the American Civil War.
As such, is an important example
of the role that spirituals played among enslaved African Americans,
spirituals that contained “coded messages of hope and resistance,”
to use the language of scholars who study such things.[iii]
Who is Mary? In this instance, Mary is Mary of Bethany,
who grieves deeply over the death of her Brother Lazarus.
That’s a story from the new testament,
a story so poignant that even Jesus weeps at Lazarus’ death.
This song, then, is a song of consolation,
reminding Mary of the central story of her faith,
of the faith of her people: the exodus from Egypt;
that when there seems no way out, the Lord finds a way.
Mary, don’t you weep over Lazarus’ death,
remember, God will provide a way out.
Enslaved people of God
don’t weep and mourn,
the Lord will provide a way.
And by inference,
if God was there for Mary, and God was there for the Hebrews
God will be with the African slaves.
It provided a necessary hope for a promised liberation:
a way out, in the midst of crippling bondage;
a way out when it seemed like there was none.
Of course, the relevance of that song didn’t end with the Civil War, right.
We know that.
The lingering inequality from the original American sin of individual and systemic racism
continues to this day
and we might collectively sigh together
where is the way out?
We know that this often feels like an intractable problem,
that just like the Pharaoh, there seems to be an inability to let it go,
that hearts are hardened and lines drawn and
it feels like all there is, is more violence
at a police stop or jogging on the street
or in the privacy of ones own home or just playing in the park
and thus more marches and more struggle,
and we’re stuck.
And if the way backward looks dangerous,
the way forward, water high on both sides
someone up ahead calling us to trust and to move forward
on dry land, sure, but through those loud and ominous waves
because on the other side, there’s freedom and there’s hope and there’s God’s future…
well, I can see why the Hebrews doubted Moses
and I can see why that moment looked particularly fraught,
and I can surely see why, looking at it from the other side, when all was said and done,
there was dancing and singing and jubilation…
About that singing an dancing and jubilation. I get it.
But yet I also struggle with it.
Because sometimes, as I’m thinking about this story,
I think about all those Egyptians in Pharaoh’s army
doing what the Pharaoh told them to do,
chasing down the Israelites.
And I find myself wishing that they turned aside, you know,
that they didn’t follow after, into the sea,
that they decided that it wasn’t worth it,
that they learned another way,
that they could open their eyes to see how liberation for the Hebrews
would liberate THEM from their role as oppressors as well.
And, at least for them, they didn’t learn that,
at least not until it was too late.
The tragedy of it is powerful, and complicated.
It is for me, at any rate.
I like to think that all of it could have been avoided,
that similar heartache can be avoided, if God can show us a way,
even as I know, on the other hand,
that oppression and slavery will inevitably lead to painfully horrible things
which are hard to put back right.
And I believe that God mourns at that, too, when it happens.
We started this sermon series
with some reflection about Jacob wrestling with God at the Jabbok.
If you recall, Jacob was given the name Israel there,
because he struggled with God and survived.
That’s what the name Israel means: a people who wrestle with God.
And so it has become a part of the Hebrew self-identity
to wrestle with their relationship with God.
It is a form of self-criticism and reflection that is worthy of emulation.
And one way that this has become formalized over the centuries
is in the practice called the Midrash.
Midrash is an official form of authoritative commentary and interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures,
where Rabbis challenge and debate and imagine the various contours of the text
where they ponder these stories that constitute their very identity.
I mention this here because there is a powerful midrash about this story
of the liberation of the Hebrews by going through Red Sea,
and particularly about what happens in the next chapter, chapter 15,
where the Hebrews, after they make it through the sea and the waves and to the other shore
and after the waters return to normal and all those Egyptians are gone,
well, the Hebrews break out into song.
Moses and Miriam and the people sing, celebrate, dance.
And in the midrash on that passage,
in the Babylonian Talmud,
the angels watching God’s victory over the Egyptians
wanted to sing as the Egyptians went under the waters.
But God rebuked the angels, saying,
“The works of My hands are drowning in the sea,
and you would utter song in My presence!”[iv]
And as a result, you can see a God
who both resolutely works to free the oppressed
and weeps over the death of the oppressor.
And, as a Christian,
I remember Jesus on the cross
crying “forgive them, Father”
and I remember how those who marched in the 60s
held prayer for the bus drivers in Montgomery
and the lunch counter employees in Greensboro
and I think about the many ways
in which there are people, this very day,
working hard to hold together the complicated efforts of marching for justice
and pursuing peace
and holding open the possibility of reconciliation.
I think about what John Green in his podcast The Anthropocene Reviewed calls Radical Hope
the idea that there is always hope, always,[v] no matter what,
and how, for me, that hope is rooted in a God who will make a way out of no way at all,
a path through the ocean,
life out of certain death,
Mary, don’t you weep.
That God wants to lead us THERE, if we can trust and follow where God is pointing us.
And God will lead us there, Thanks be to God.
One final thing that we need to say here:
we cannot draw too strong a comparison between these difficult moments.
The suffering of the Hebrews
is not the same as the struggles of African Americans.
That time is not the same as our time. We know that.
And there are other struggles happening around us,
some personal, some systemic, worthy of reflection and care and grace.
But, as it is often said, history, it often speaks in rhyme,
and we can recognize the similarities between our time and that day on the shore of the Red Sea,
even as we ourselves seem to be looking for a way out,
a way beyond what feels like an impasse, and toward ultimate reconciliation for all God’s people.
And in those moments,
in this moment,
we turn to a God who has time and time again
inspired a people
to work for justice and for peace and for reconciliation,
a God who will not stand by when people are not free.
Our job, it seems to me, is to try to help one another lean into this work, to lean into hope,
so that we can avoid heartache wherever possible,
so we can grow beyond our failures
as we move ever more boldly into the realm of God.
And we will do that with the help of our God
who guides us forward, today, and tomorrow.
May it be so.
[i] See https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2020/09/maya-gabeira-surfed-biggest-wave-year/616216/ (accessed September 12, 2020)
[ii] From her sermon on Exodus 14:19-31. Portions of this center section draw extensively from her work here, to whom all credit is due.
[iv] This is cited in many places, but see for instance The Jewish Study Bible, Second Ed. Jewish Publication Society, Tanakh Translation (Oxford University Press, New York, 2014)