A sermon for Proper 19
Exodus 14:19-31, Psalm 114, Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:21-35
Last week our sandals shuffled uneasily in the ʾadāmâ our loins were girded, as we ate bitter herbs, flat bread, and roasted mutton, with staffs in hand, waiting for to begin the journey to a new life in a new home free of the burdens of Pharaoh’s oppressive economic policies. This morning we are well on our way. Almost! The extended families of Israel’s 12 sons have trekked across eastern Egypt, led by a divine pillar of cloud by day that becomes a pillar of fire by night. The route is not straight, by command it wanders about the Egyptian wilderness. The meandering is long enough for Pharaoh and his court to have second thoughts. With 600 chariots, a force of shock and awe in its day, he pursues the former slaves. The army catches up with them at Pi-hahiroth (Strong’s) or the mouth of canals (Holman Bible Dictionary). The Israelites are now trapped between the Pharaoh’s army and the sea. Though long interpreted ‘Red’ scholars dispute where it actually is; some think it is the Reed Sea, others, as the name of place might indicate, believe it is an expansive marsh (Hoezee), and some believe it is “Sea of the End.” (Petersen and Gavenat) Where ever it is, the arrival of Pharaoh’s chariots has it intended effect, ~ panic rages through the trapped people of Israel, who blame Moses for their impending doom. God commands Moses to move Israel forward, and at the sea, stretch out his staff, so that Israel will cross on dry ground. At the same time the leading cloud moves to rear, as a guard between Israel and Pharaoh. At the sea’s edge Moses does as commanded, and an east winds blows the waters back and Israel crosses over on dry land. Only here, the word is different, meaning dessert; its root means dried up in ruins, and other forms means judgment and destruction. (Portier-Young) (Strong’s) As you know, Israel crosses safely. And Pharaoh’s mighty technology of conquest, (Portier-Young) get mired in the mud as the waters return, and as they drown, the army Pharaoh, Egypt’s god, recognize Israel’s God as God of all the earth. (Fretheim)
This is one of those times, when I wish we allowed a bit more electronic stuff in our worship space, to project an image or that I had the musical where with all to play the music, we all know from going to the movies, that reveals that there is something else going on. Anathea Portier-Young cites Martin Luther King’s sermon on this passage in which he:
called out the evils any could see in his own time. 1 They included greed and war, “high places where [people] are willing to sacrifice truth on the altars of their self-interest,” and “imperialistic nations trampling over other nations with the iron feet of oppression.” 2 King names nations and numbers. And he narrates racial desegregation as God’s work of ending and reordering in his own day: he saw the Red Sea open in the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education. (Portier-Young)
It’s a worthy provocative observation; however, what’s more interesting this morning is the echo of the creation narrative. (Petersen and Gavenat)
You remember back when we walked through Genesis we learned it was written when the Jews were in captivity in Babylon. Among the creation myths where Baal, the Canaanite god of salvation and fertility, who defeat of Yam and Nahar, the gods of “sea and river” signals the victory of order, creation, and fertility. Marduk defeats the sea monster Tiamat as the initial act of creation (Harrelson) In Genesis 1:9 ff God separates the dry land, he calls ‘Earth’ from the waters. In a theological sequel, here God separates dry land from water allowing life to prosper. (Hoezee) (Harrelson) Throughout scripture the chaos of water threatens life: the flood story, the boys thrown into the Nile to drown, (Hoezee) the disciples trying to cross the sea when Jesus is asleep in the back of the boat, and the night when he intends to walk by. And here, as in Genesis and the Gospels, it is divine control over the chaos of water that 1. preserves life and 2. leads to the revelation of God as The God. Which is always part of engaging the Bible. This is a good place to bring it home; however, there is one more tiny piece to explore.
In setting up her citing King Portier-Young observes:
In refusing to let God’s people go, Pharaoh leads his own people to their grave.
For several weeks now, a continuing theme has been our future; how is St. Stephen’s going to continue to be an Episcopal presence in Blytheville AR, in the 21st century. I’ve generally said something about proclaiming the presence of God right here, right now. I’ve also tended to point out that our going into the future requires letting go of those things of our past that actually get in our way. The scriptures have tended to be examples of what folks left behind. Abram left his father’s people and headed off into the wilderness, for an undisclosed location; who knows if it’s secure? Isaac had to let go of his scheming ways, a manifestation of his need to be in control, and trust God. Jacob, by then Israel, had to let go of losing Joseph, to let go of Benjamin. Moses’ mother had to let go of her son. We don’t hear about Pharaoh’s daughter after she adopts Moses, but she too let go. The one we know doesn’t let go is Pharaoh. Why he doesn’t scripture attributes to God hardening his heart, while scholars ponder his holding on to very profitable economic venture, built on the brutal oppressive enslavement of Israel. His holding on brought death and destruction. And when Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob tried to hold on the results are troubles and stumbling blocks to a divinely guided future.
So, as we begin an intentional assessment of:
- where we are?
- where God is calling us to be?
- how we are to proclaim the Kingdom of God right here right now,
we will also have to identify what to let go of. That may be things you already know about; the possibility of selling the rectory. Or thinks you may have heard of like the vision for Stephen’s house, which includes moving from this place to another that allows ministry this facility does not. It also requires we let go of possible long held anger toward the diocese that emanates from decisions of leaders long since gone. We didn’t read it, but in this morning’s story, when the threat of Pharaoh’s army appears all Israel clung to tiny bit of false joy when they were under Pharaoh’s thumb. They had to let go of what literally bound them. So do we. And when we do, we will find the ʾadāmâ beneath our feet to be fertile, and we will be a people known for our awe and service to the God of our fathers, whose mastery over chaos, brings life to all. Amen.
Fretheim, Terence E. Interpretation A BIBLE COMMENTARY FOR TEACHING AND PREACHING. Ed. Patrick D Miller, Jr. and Paul J. Achtemeier. Vol. Exodus. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991.
Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.
Hoezee, Scott. Old Testament Lectionary Text is: Exodus 3:1-15. 31 8 2014. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php>.
“Holman Bible Dictionary.” WORD – QuickVerse , n.d.
Petersen, David and Beverly Roberts Gaventa. New Interpreters’ Bible, One Volume Commentary. Nashville TN: Abbingdon Press, 2010. ebook.
Petersen, David L and Beverly R Gavenat. New Interpreter’s Onve Volume Commentary. Nashville TN: Abingdon Press, 2010.
Portier-Young, Anathea. “Commentary on Exodus 3:1-15.” 31 8 2014. workingpreacher.org. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2136>.
Strong’s Talking Greek & Hebrew Dictionary. Wordsearch, n.d.