— A Sermon by Robert W. Prim —
~~~ 15th Sunday after Pentecost ~~~
Scripture: Exodus 14:19-31
and portions of the Canticle of Moses and Miriam
(Exodus 15:1-5; 20, 21)
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.
(A chanting of Exodus 15:1b-11)
At the time of my birth, fathers sat in waiting rooms smoking cigarettes and holding a box of cigars. Such a time was very unlike today when fathers, partners are right there in the midst of the messiness. I think it’s better now. The men, the partners, of the women giving birth are more aware of the pain, labor, hard breathing, of the emotional cost and glory of giving birth.
I was the third child born to Bob and Mary Prim. I have two older sisters, and a younger sister and younger brother. And the mythology throughout my life that has been associated with my birth, my entrance into the world, is that my father, upon hearing that I was born and that I was a boy, went screaming down the hall of the hospital saying – “Yahoo! Yahoo! I have a son! Yahoo!”
It’s a nice mythology to have. I don’t know how factual it is. I have a hard time imagining my father being so uninhibited; yet, the truth of the story I know to be accurate. My father and my mother were excited that I was born. My mother and my father delivered me into their loving world, and they were grateful I had come.
This story in Exodus of the Hebrew people being delivered through the sea is the story of a birthing. As the Israelites passed through the water, like a child passing through the womb, they were birthed into freedom and love. Behind them was hard labor, servitude, oppression and ahead of them lay freedom, wilderness, and hope for a new life of love and appreciation. And the mythology of this birthing serves as God’s “Yahoo” for Israel and for all her children.
In the retelling of this story of passing through the sea, the birth canal of freedom and love, Israel and her children – we – are remembering that God is excited to be our Parent. When we are baptized we are remembering that God is delighted that we have come into the world.
This love and appreciation is clear and firm despite our complaining, despite our lack of faith, despite our failure of vision. We are often like the Hebrew people who cried out to Moses – Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?…Is it not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’?” Despite all of this God delivers us and declares to us – “You are my people!”
And on freedom’s shore, Moses and Miriam led the delivered, newly birthed, people in singing and dancing! With one of the oldest couplets in all of Scripture we get a sense of the jubilation
I will sing to the LORD,
for the LORD has triumphed gloriously;
the horse and its rider have been thrown into the sea.
In gratitude for the deliverance into a new life of freedom and love, there was singing and dancing.
Yet, despite the joy of this story, maybe because of the joy of this story, this text today is a difficult one. Was it necessary for all the Egyptians to be drowned in the chaos of the crumbling sea walls? Is not the God of Israel also the God of Egypt and the God of all creation? What kind of God unleashes such destructive forces even upon enemies?
As much as we might want to believe that we, in all of our enlightenment, are the only generation to raise such questions, we are not. The truth is … there are passages in the Talmud that wrestle with this problem. (The Talmud is the oral teachings of the Jewish rabbis that lived several hundred years before and after the Common Era that were eventually written down in a massive collection.) The Talmud address the time of singing and celebration of the Israelites on the freedom shore by telling this story: The whole world became song. Even the angels began to sing, but God interrupted them with the most universally human call to order in the Talmud: ‘My creatures are drowning in the sea – and you are singing? What if they are enemies of Israel and liberty – they are still human beings! How can you think of singing while human beings are drowning? (Elie Wiesel, Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends).
Even in the ancient oral traditions of our forebears in the faith there is the question – how could God do this? How could the God of all creation do this? And we as followers of Jesus, a first century Jew, have his teachings ringing in our ears –
Love your enemies, do good to those who persecute you.
Blessed are the peacemakers
for they shall be called children of God.
Do not resist an evil doer.
But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.
How are we to understand this story of God’s death-dealing ways with the Egyptians given our understanding of God’s mercy and grace and forgiveness – seventy times seven, as Jesus told Peter?
I return to a word I have used rather loosely in this sermon – mythology. This story is myth-like in its qualities. Myth is defined as – a legendary narrative that presents part of the beliefs of a people or explains a practice or natural phenomenon (The New Merriam-Webster Dictionary). Myth falls apart or stops functioning in a life-affirming way if it is taken too literally. Myth is depth language about the world in which we live. Myth language is not separated from history – real events are often described in mythological language. The Israelites, we can presume in some way, did escape from bondage, and glorious, God-filled language is appropriate to describe such an important event.
My daddy was excited about my birth even if he didn’t run up and down the corridors of the hospital yelling Yahoo!
In this story, the depth message is not that God is vindictive, wrathful, destructive, and only on the side of the Israelites. No. The religious truth of the story is that God was and is always at work giving birth to people who know they are loved. The truth of the story is that God is on the side of oppressed, unloved people everywhere.
That is why this story has had such resonance with the African American community, and why Martin Luther King, Jr. could be thought of as a modern Moses. God wants people to live knowing that they are loved and valued! God sends leaders to lead the way from servitude to freedom.
The details of the story – the smoke, mud, death – remind us that work on behalf of an all-inclusive and freeing love is often a messy work. Giving birth is always messy. It is always difficult to overcome our oppressive tendencies. All of us have a strong inclination toward the preservation of power and comfort or, as in the case of the Israelites, the simple preservation of what we know. And like the Pharaoh in pursuit of his slave labor, we are quick to defend the systems and structures that keep us comfortable, insulated, unchallenged. The story of Moses leading the people through the waters into freedom says, as Walter Bruggemann has written –
The good news of the poem is that God’s power for life is arrayed against, and victorious over, every enemy of human well-being in every present power arrangement (The New Interpreter’s Bible)
So, the depth message of the story
of the Hebrew people coming through the sea
into new life is:
God, our heavenly Parent, loves us
and God is always on the side of
love and justice
for all human beings,
for all of creation.
As we work for justice and love for those oppressed,
we can join God and the angels in dancing
the jubilant dance of God’s Yahoo for us and for the least,
even and especially the least, of God’s good creation!
But there is work to be done before the dancing can begin…
A postscript that speaks of being called by God to help lead people out of oppression into freedom and the messiness of such work. It is a story that is brutal and hard to hear, but a story that speaks to the consequences of the wicked ideology of white supremacy and racist language used by leaders and embraced by those led. It is a story, as brutal as it is, that reminds us that God will always find ways to raise up leaders who show us the way to love and justice for all human beings.
The Reverend Billy Kyles, who had devoted his life to the civil rights movement, is probably most remembered for the fact that he was standing beside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 4, 1968 just moments before a sniper’s bullet murdered the modern day Moses of the liberation of African American people in the United States.
In an article entitled “At History’s Elbow” Mr. Kyles writes this: When the movement started in the South, I said, “I need to be a part of this. This is going to be something.” At the time, I was an assistant pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church in Chicago, and had and wife and three kids. I started going to Memphis as a visiting preacher. I’d take the train down there for $10 a week, two Sundays a month, to preach at the Monumental church.
All my friends said, “You’re crazy. You’re in Chicago, the ‘Promised Land.” Why are your going to Egypt voluntarily?”
The Reverend Kyles went for the same reason Dr. King got involved in the civil rights movement. Though Martin Luther King, Jr. had a Ph.D in Theology from Boston University and could have had a comfortable and safe middle-income life, he heard the call of God to go and set God’s people free. He followed the call and it was messy, as it was for Mr. Kyles.
The Reverend Kyles tells the story of being on that balcony…
At about a quarter of six in the evening I was up on the balcony of the motel with Martin. He was in a playful mood, saying hello to people down in the courtyard. Martin was leaning over the rail talking to Jesse Jackson, who was down in the courtyard with bandleader Ben Branch from Memphis.
I said, “Come on, guys, let’s go,” and had just stepped off the balcony when a shot rang out. People were ducking. I looked back and saw that Martin had been knocked from the railing back on the balcony. I rushed to his side, and there was this tremendous hole in the side of his neck. I ran to call an ambulance, but I couldn’t get anybody on the phone. The motel’s operator had left the switchboard when she heard the shot and gone out into the courtyard. When she realized that Martin had been shot, she collapsed in the courtyard with a heart attack. She died the next day.
I ran back out and the police were coming with their guns drawn.
“Call an ambulance on your police radio!” I hollered. “Dr. King’s been shot!”
They said: “Where did the shot come from?” That’s when the famous picture of the people pointing on the balcony was taken.
I took one of the bedspreads and I covered him from his neck down. There was blood everywhere. The assassin had used dumdum bullets – the ones that mushroom – so there was a big hole in his chest, and he was bleeding profusely. It was a nightmare. There’s no way to describe how I felt, to be standing that close to a friend one moment and the next he’s gone.
I asked myself, “Why was I there?” It took me a long time to figure that out, but eventually it became clear to me that I was there to be an independent witness who must tell the truth. Martin Luther King, Jr., didn’t die in some untoward way, some foolish way. With all his talent and training, he died on a balcony in Memphis, Tennessee, helping garbage workers, poor folks (My Soul Look Back in Wonder by Juan Williams, pp.153-156).
So, I say this day, let us know deep in our hearts that we are beloved of God … and so are those who are oppressed and suffering. May we in whatever ways we can be ready to go and be a part of God’s work to set God’s people free! Amen.