Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
September 13, 2020
“Go Forward and Live or Turn Back and Die”
Exodus 14: 19-31 – The Message
19-20 The angel of God that had been leading the camp of Israel now shifted and got behind them. And the Pillar of Cloud that had been in front also shifted to the rear. The Cloud was now between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Israel. The Cloud enshrouded one camp in darkness and flooded the other with light. The two camps didn’t come near each other all night.
21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea and God, with a terrific east wind all night long, made the sea go back. He made the sea dry ground. The seawaters split.
22-25 The Israelites walked through the sea on dry ground with the waters a wall to the right and to the left. The Egyptians came after them in full pursuit, every horse and chariot and driver of Pharaoh racing into the middle of the sea. It was now the morning watch. God looked down from the Pillar of Fire and Cloud on the Egyptian army and threw them into a panic. He clogged the wheels of their chariots; they were stuck in the mud.
The Egyptians said, “Run from Israel! God is fighting on their side and against Egypt!”
26 God said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea and the waters will come back over the Egyptians, over their chariots, over their horsemen.”
27-28 Moses stretched his hand out over the sea: As the day broke and the Egyptians were running, the sea returned to its place as before. God dumped the Egyptians in the middle of the sea. The waters returned, drowning the chariots and riders of Pharaoh’s army that had chased after Israel into the sea. Not one of them survived.
29-31 But the Israelites walked right through the middle of the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall to the right and to the left. God delivered Israel that day from the oppression of the Egyptians. And Israel looked at the Egyptian dead, washed up on the shore of the sea, and realized the tremendous power that God brought against the Egyptians. The people were in reverent awe before God and trusted in God and his servant Moses.
(After watching a clip from the 1956 movie The Ten Commandments.) I couldn’t resist showing the scene of Charlton Heston raising his hand over his head to part the Red Sea. It’s a little kitschy and over the top, but it certainly makes the point about the miraculous nature of their escape from slavery. In fact, I find it more compelling than such rational explanations that a stiff wind all night dried marshy land making it possible for people to walk across while the heavy chariots got caught up in the underlying mud. Sure, it may have been possible, but I root for the triumph of the impossible. But how they got across isn’t as important as the fundamental message: “Once you were slaves in Egypt, and now you are free.” That’s more than walking with wet shoes. It takes God for that to happen.
They were trapped. On one side, water prevented their escape, and on the other side, 600 rapidly approaching Egyptian army chariots. Imagine hearing the sound, seeing the dust rise from miles away, feeling the rumbling of the ground as those chariots advanced. Just before our passage today, verse 10 says, “They were totally afraid. They cried out in terror to God. They told Moses, “Weren’t the cemeteries in Egypt large enough? Did you have to take us out here in the wilderness to die? What have you done to us? Back in Egypt we told you, ‘Leave us alone—we’re better off as slaves than as corpses in the wilderness.’”
But, of what were they really afraid? Was it death or freedom? For those who had never experienced it before, what is that thing called freedom?
In 1937, 2,300 formerly enslaved African Americans were interviewed as part of the depression-era Federal Writer’s Project. 88-year-old Mary Crane said she was 14 years old “when President Lincoln set us all free.” She said, “I’m telling you right when I say that my folks and friends did not regard freedom as an ‘unmixed blessing.’”
Ezra Adams said, “I don’t remember when I first regarded myself as ‘free.’ Many of us just “didn’t understand what it was all about.”
Daniel Waring said, “The former slaves where I lived knew they had an abundance of freedom, but they could not eat, wear, or sleep in it. They soon learned that freedom is nothing unless you have something to live in and a place to call home.”
Most of us know that Harriet Tubman was known as the Moses of her people. And you may recall she carried a gun with her as she led groups along the Underground Railroad. Not just to protect from slave patrols but to keep those who were afraid from turning back. Sometimes she threatened, “If you don’t follow me, I’m going to kill you. Go forward and live or turn back and die.”
Standing at the water’s edge, the escaping Hebrews cried out to return to what was familiar, even though it was bondage. Then the sea parted. They crossed and “The prophet Miriam took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her dancing. Miriam sang: ‘horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.’” It’s the earliest recorded song in the Bible.
But their first day of freedom wasn’t even over yet before they began to reminisce, “Remember the fish we used to eat for nothing? The cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, garlic… but now?” Again, that was the same day as their miraculous crossing over. But of course, as Daniel Waring testified from personal experience, you can’t eat, wear, or sleep in freedom.
Freedom is center stage in many of our lives right now. Some people are demanding freedom from the tyranny of wearing masks. Some people are demanding freedom from getting shot by police. Some people just want freedom from quarantine to hug, to gather with friends. And, of course, to return to such normal routines as coming home on Homecoming Sunday. I recognize not all of these examples are equal. But it’s also not right to judge some grieving as worse than others. Grief is grief. Just like fear.
The Hebrews were now free. From slavery. From Egypt. Now the question is, for what? In their fears, freedom meant hunger, even though the promise was a land flowing with milk and honey. But of course, they didn’t know it would take 40 years to get there because it would take them 40 years to unlearn a lifetime of bondage.
Ask someone released from prison. Freedom from addiction. Freedom from an abuser can be hard if it’s all you’ve ever known. Oppression. Cruelty. Tyranny. How long does it take for a society finally free from a tyrant to recover? And not do it again.
Note that God’s great liberation narrative is always freedom from oppression, not accommodation to it. We don’t need tips and tricks for surviving. God’s great liberation narrative, “the primal, most simple, most elemental, and non-negotiable story at the heart of biblical faith,” as Walter Brueggemann describes the Exodus; God’s great liberation narrative is freedom from cruelty, not a series of lessons in how to live with it. But freedom from means freedom for something. And that’s hard. Harder than going back. It’s sacrificial. It’s for a purpose. What was God’s liberative purpose in opening the sea for them? And what liberation is God seeking for our world today?
Out in the wilderness, the former slaves had to learn to turn away from the tyranny of Pharaoh and resist the temptation to recreate it among themselves. In the place of Pharaoh’s wealth and absolute power, God gave them “some of the most radical socioeconomic laws in human history.” As Marcus Borg describes it, “no interest was to be charged on loans to each other. Every Sabbath year, every seventh year, all debts owed to each other were to be forgiven and any slaves they collected were to be released. Every Jubilee year, every 50th year, all agricultural land was to be returned at no cost to the original family of ownership. When they settled the land, every family was given a plot. Over time, families that ran into difficulties sometimes lost their land because of debt. In the Jubilee year, the land was to be restored to its original owner.”
In other words, they were freed from ancient systems built on injustice and domination. And with their freedom they were to create shalom – a world of wellbeing, peace, and wholeness. A world Jesus would describe as the Kingdom of God. A world we describe as open, inclusive, just, and compassionate.
What does all of this say to the church on Homecoming Sunday? In its best sense, Homecoming means going back, telling stories, laughing, reminiscing… and at Park Hill, the youth group cooking hot dogs. Lance in his Black Panther costume. It’s a regrouping and regathering in one place to be sent back into the world in courage and peace. Of course, not everyone’s home or childhood was peaceful and loving, so returning home isn’t equally nostalgic for everyone.
In its idealized sense, Homecoming may be a reminder of better times. It’s not unusual for some churches that after years of decline, its forward mission is actually a retreat, trying to recreate what worked well decades ago instead crossing the sea to freedom-land. Remember when the youth group sold those cucumbers and leeks and onions…
As we worship from home today, it may feel like the momentum of our church’s steady forward mission has been put on forced retreat. But, in contrast, instead of looking back and hoping for a return to what we once were, God is leading us to become something we’ve never been before, something more than we could imagine. Going forward, our congregation will be more than those who get in their car to drive to church, or did so when they lived here. Not one place, but one people. As of today, we are the church home of people no matter where their home is located. That’s a new concept. One that liberates us from location to our shared vocation as people who seek a world that is open, inclusive, just, and compassionate. Still in Park Hill, but now also everywhere that Park Hill lives.
It’ll take some time to get used to this new identity. But God will make a way for us. It may not take the power of Charlton Heston raising his hand, but it will require more of us than a dry-cleaning bill for our shoes if we are to fully include more than just those we can wave at in the next pew. We certainly didn’t know it then, but the intentionality we gave to building relationships last fall has prepared us for this grand experiment in being church – before, during, and long after the pandemic. And I believe that building relationships is that which will heal our nation when we’ve escaped the latest tyrant named Pharaoh.
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My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and Traveling around the world