Weekly Preaching: September 17, 2017

September 11th, 2017

Ah, the lectionary. The Gospel is Matthew 18:21-35, the threatening tirade on forgiveness that makes forgiveness feel more like a duty under which you might chafe than a liberation from the afflictions of brokenness. Romans 14 was paired with it by the lectionary’s anonymous creators, we may surmise, due to its insistence that we should not pass judgment on others. In Romans 14 we see that Paul isn’t caught up in vegetarian fervor; and while “None of us lives to himself” is a promising phrase, I’m definitely going with Exodus 14 this week as we are upon perhaps the key, pivotal text of the entire Old Testament (and if N.T. Wright is right, of the entire Bible).

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For an image that's current, I wonder about the recent movie Dunkirk. The good guys, pursued by the Nazis, are hemmed in on the beach. A miracle is required... is it a miracle when lots of little boat-owners courageously come after you?

How deftly the preacher must handle this text given hurricanes Harvey and Irma. 

In Exodus, a deluge is God's judgment on Egypt, and defeater of Israel's foes. Now everyone is praying for safety and recovery for those impacted by too much water. I recall when Katrina struck New Orleans, quite a few fool preachers claimed it was God's judgment on a decadent place. What is the relationship between God and masses of destructive water? Aren't we finally humbled and mystified? Things happen. People are hurt. Some get off free. Is Exodus a miracle (we're inclined toward yes...) but a rescue in South Florida is just courage and good luck? One is the creation of a nation, the other the saving of an individual — is that the distinction? Regardless, we should discourage folks from saying God saved me/my house, while somebody else got wiped out.
September 17 is Bible Sunday at our place; we give Bibles (autographed by yours truly!) to our 3rd graders — and what better text to envision coming alive than this one? The image of deliverance has resounded through the ages, even in the Christian world. We need to remind ourselves of that qualifier: this is the Jewish story, their epic of salvation, not ours; we piggyback on their story, we borrow it humbly to make sense of God and our world. Benjamin Franklin argued that the Seal of the US should depict Moses, rod uplifted, parting the waters. And Taylor Branch’s fabulous story of the Civil Rights movement was wisely titled Parting the Waters, so pivotal was this theme in the attempted saving of America and Americans.
The biblical story, by chapter 14 in Exodus, has come full circle: Joseph being sold, his rise, fall and rise in Egypt, the tear-jerking reconciliation with his brothers, Joseph jumping from his chariot to weep on Jacob’s shoulders, then the passing of time and dreadful descent into slavery. Clearly Jacob’s family, which might have numbered 70 or so, has obeyed the injunction to “be fruitful and multiply.” Shiphrah and Puah must have had many helpers in delivering so many children over the decades. 
The numbers are a problem. 600,000 or so men? Add women and children and you’re up to 2 million people... which Egypt couldn’t sustain, and which most assuredly would have been noted in Egyptian annals (as the entire population of Egypt then might have been five million). Experts in queueing theory have done the math, and marching two million people out of anywhere would have required days, not minutes or hours, and with thousands abreast? Hebrew helps us here. The word translated “thousand,” elef, originally indicated an extended family unit of nine to fourteen, then later a military contingent of roughly the same size. So were there two million? Or something closer to six hundred elefs, meaning six to eight thousand (which is still a lot)?
The crowd might be smaller than we’d thought, and the bigger historical question revolves around through which body of water they escaped. We may be attached in our imaginations to the Cecil B. DeMille “Ten Commandments” scene, where a huge body of water is split, with 25 foot banks of water forming a canyon through which the two million walked. But the Hebrew doesn’t say it was the Red Sea, but the yam suf, the “sea of reeds.” How the Vulgate weirdly rendered yam suf as mare rubrum is a puzzle (as is why the Red Sea is called red, which it isn’t). This sea of reeds sounds like much of Egypt’s border… so the deliverance was through a more shallow body of water, more of a marsh.
I knew fundamentalist friends in college who were mortified by this possibility, chalking it up to the heresy of historical-critical scholarship. But the Hebrew text is what it is; literalists aren’t literalists if they insist on Red Sea and Cecil B. DeMille. I remember one rejoinder to this from a fundamentalist friend: “How amazing then was it that God drowned the entire Egyptian army in such shallow water!” 
The point of our story seems to be that they took off through a marshy sea of reeds, thought to be impassible by the Egyptians, who left it undefended… and some kind of miracle, maybe an unusually strong wind, pressed the water back just enough that they were able to elude the Egyptian pursuit. Do our miracles have to match bad translations or movies made in the 1950’s to qualify?
The preacher can’t mock or ridicule though; we guide our people gently, always — and perhaps leave the Bible study issues for a classroom setting. We also need to help people sort through what is a miracle and what is natural; maybe then we address how the natural is similarly miraculous. You could try the old joke about the guy who said God would save him during a torrential downpour. The water rose, someone came by in a canoe but he declined to get in; a motorboat came by when the water was up to the windows but he trusted God instead; finally he climbed on the roof but refused the helicopter as well. You know the punchline after he drowned: he asked God Why didn’t you save me? God replied I sent you a canoe, a motorboat and a helicopter.
I just don’t do this in preaching; if you try it, you have to go somewhere realistic and meaningful (since people don’t refuse helicopters from their roofs), like how doctors cure you; maybe that's God, too. Preaching on Exodus 14 can’t wrestle at too much length on miracles or the lack thereof; the sermon is for the theology of deliverance here.
From my book, Weak Enough to Lead, coming out later this month:
Not surprisingly then, Moses’ attempts to lead failed repeatedly. In his first appearance in Pharaoh’s court he was humiliated. The plagues he unleashed only drew the ire of his own people, as their lot only worsened. Once Moses finally got them to the sea’s edge, when they heard the rumbling of Pharaoh’s chariots in pursuit, the people wailed in horror, pleading with him to take them back. His response was not to turn and fight, or to flee in a zigzag escape route. Instead, with Pharaoh’s juggernaut bearing down on them, he said to the people, “Stand still and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today” (Ex 14:13). Do… nothing at all.

Perhaps Jehoshaphat thought of this moment centuries later when he said “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you” (2 Chr 20:12). Perhaps the Psalmist had been so spiritually intoxicated by this moment that he quite effortlessly wrote on God’s behalf, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps 46:8). Or did Isaiah 36 have this moment in mind when the Assyrian Rabshakeh mocked Hezekiah and the Judeans in their besieged Jerusalem, ‘Do you think that mere words are strategy for war?’ (Isa. 36:5). No secular leadership manual will ever counsel doing nothing, or simply looking to God for a miracle. But the theologically attuned leader will come upon quite a few brick walls where a calm, holy, do-nothing approach will be the only thing to do — and the best thing to do.

Who was the first to step into the water? According to the rabbis it was Nahshon son of Aminadav. Only after Nahshon actually waded into the water did the sea part so everyone else could cross over. That first person to step forward is always the key. I admire Elie Wiesel’s retelling of this story: ‘One could see people running, running breathlessly, without a glance backward; they were running toward the sea.  And there they came to an abrupt halt: this was the end; death was there, waiting. The leaders of the group, urged on by Moses, pushed forward: Don’t be afraid, go, into the water, into the water! Yet, according to one commentator, Moses suddenly ordered everyone to a halt: Wait a moment. Think, take a moment to reassess what it is you are doing. Enter the sea not as frightened fugitives but as free men!’

To witness a walk to freedom is liberating. Nelson Mandela walked out of a prison in South Africa into the history books. John Lewis, who became a congressman from Georgia, pointed to a photograph of himself as a young seminarian being released from prison in Nashville. His face glowed with a dignity, a confidence: “I had never had that much dignity before. It was exhilarating — it was something I had earned, the sense of the independence that comes to a free person.”

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Wiesel is right: this story is about human dignity. The Pharaoh repeatedly shows that he, at the apex of the pyramid, with all the world has at this fingertips, is the one who has no dignity. God sees the plight of the abused, the forgotten, those who only matter as units of production. They are precious to God. God wills freedom for them, something so many regimes have gotten wrong by suggesting that slaves or the poor should accept their lot and hope for heaven one day.
I love the scene in Birth of a Nation when Nat Turner announces “I’ve read the whole Bible now.” He had been forced to preach to his fellow slaves from that handful of texts that speak of submission to authority; but then he broke free, preached the full Bible, and a revolution was sparked. A breathtaking display in the new National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington is Turner's Bible.
The rabbis taught that the angels did not celebrate when the Egyptian army was lost; we should be careful to avoid triumphalist readings of this and similar texts, and also moments in our lives. God’s will isn’t a win for the good guys while the bad guys get crushed. God’s will isn’t for me to get the job while somebody else goes without. God’s will is always larger than our imaginings or our vain narrowness. God never rejoices in the fall or defeat or suffering of any of God’s creatures — a point worth touching on in our violent, good guys vs. bad guys culture.
And finally: once freed, the people discovered God wasn’t leading them in a beeline to the Promised Land. Partly they were avoiding Egyptians fortifications. But also God saved them for a purpose which will only be clarified in the middle of their long detour to the south, at Mt. Sinai. Freedom is to know and fulfill God’s law. It isn’t that we are free to do as we wish, even free to choose for or against God. We are in bondage to self and sin, and God sets us free — not to do as we wish, or even to do what we think we want to do for God, but to do what God wants. In our liturgy we say “Free us for joyful obedience.” This liberation is a joyful one, after all. Right after Exodus 14 we get the raucous song of praise, with dancing and timbrels, in Exodus 15. What other reply to redemption could there be?

This article originally appeared on the author's blog. Reprinted with permission.
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