Exodus 14:21 – 15:8
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.
Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord: “I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him. The Lord is a warrior; the Lord is his name. “Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he cast into the sea; his picked officers were sunk in the Red Sea. The floods covered them; they went down into the depths like a stone. Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power— your right hand, O Lord, shattered the enemy. In the greatness of your majesty you overthrew your adversaries; you sent out your fury, it consumed them like stubble. At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up, the floods stood up in a heap; the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea.
SERMON A God Who Weeps 9.13.20
Allow me to be very direct. This is probably not going to be an easy sermon to hear, because today I want to talk about those dead bodies…the bodies of those Egyptians who had washed up on the shore. I’ve read this story hundreds of times before and yet I never really thought about them. Instead, my imagination was captured by the dividing of the waters and the liberation of God’s people. My ear was then attuned to the joyful singing of the Israelites as they celebrated their great escape.
But what of those dead Egyptians face down at the shoreline, with the water lapping up against their lifeless bodies. I bet I am not the only one still haunted by that image of a lifeless little boy found face down on a Mediterranean beach having fled for his life from the seemingly endless conflicts in Syria. I bet you all remember that.
On the surface, the text seems to suggest that it was God’s hand at work through the hand of Moses – God punishing Pharaoh and his men as they pursued the Israelites who had been given the opportunity to safely evacuate from Egypt, but I wonder. After all, one suspects that things may not have been so different then as they are now in terms of who served in the army. How much choice did those men really have? While it is believed that the Charioteers were drawn from the Egyptian upper classes, many of those with sandals on the ground were men who had been conscripted into Pharaoh’s infantry. They were involuntarily volunteered to serve. . .involuntarily separated from their loved ones when Pharaoh needed more men. Guess what guys; You’re in the army now!
Did the sons of the leisure class serve on the front lines in Pharaoh’s army? I suspect not. And when I read the story this time I noticed something else I had never noticed before. According to the story Pharaoh led the charge. He ordered his men, all his horses, his chariots, and his entire army to pursue the Israelites who had fled from Egypt by night until they arrived at the Red Sea and then, if you read the story carefully, you’ll notice that it says that every chariot and driver raced forward into the sea, but Pharaoh is not named as among them.
And that makes sense, doesn’t it? As we well know Generals lead from behind. They are never up there on the front lines. So we don’t actually know if Pharaoh even died that day. In fact he may well have headed back home to his beautiful palace and lovely family that night, concerned about how he would rebuild his army, but able to face another day.
O, I know, we’d like to think that Pharaoh got his come-up-ance, We all cheer at the end of a movie when the bad guy finally gets it in the end and Pharaoh had been really bad. He had been warned not to do what he was doing. He had been told to let the Hebrew people go.
And if Moses’ words to him hadn’t made it clear that God wants God’s people to be free then surely seven plagues should have convinced him. According to the story, even his own soldiers told Pharaoh that it was time to turn back as the wheels of their chariots began to sink in the mud of the returning Red Sea. But Pharaoh still didn’t listen, even to his own men. O sure, he had had a momentary lapse in his obsession…enough to let the Hebrew people high-tail it out of Egypt in the first place…but after that he was driven by some darkness within him. It seems like he just couldn’t stop himself. . . couldn’t leave well enough alone.
How often does it happen…that when a person who thrives on power is threatened he strikes back viciously. And remember the Egyptians considered Pharaoh a god. He was invested with ultimate power. This supposed god would not be mocked! And so he ordered the pursuit. These people…these slaves…weren’t going to get away with this!
Unfortunately when this happens, the price is always great. When the tyrant wants revenge the cost is high. In this case the price was those dead bodies floating face down beside the shore of the Red Sea while the children of Israel sang and danced for joy.
Did they just get what they deserved? Do you really think that? I mean you can make a case for Pharaoh being struck down, but all those men? Even the ones who were never given a choice about serving in Pharaoh’s army?
Besides, as followers of Jesus we know all too well that if any of us got what we deserved in life we probably should all be swallowed up in the waters of Red Sea. No, our old faith insists that we all stand on the same step. Paul insists that when it comes to sin any difference between us is inconsequential, so we had better watch out if we ever start clapping on the sidelines when someone gets what we think they deserved.
So, what are we supposed to do with this text that seems to suggest that God made this happen? I have learned that when something like this pops up in the Hebrew Scriptures it’s always a good idea to turn to my rabbi friend and ask her how the Jews deal with it. So I called my friend, Rabbi Suzanne Singer from Temple Beth El in Riverside and she told me that there is a wonderful Midrash verse about this. For those who don’t know what the Midrash is it’s an ancient Jewish commentary on the Hebrew scriptures. The Midrash is actually attached to their scriptures and as such is really a secondary part of them.
Well the Midrash includes this wonderful verse about this story. It says: “The Egyptians were drowning in the sea. At the same time, the angels wanted to sing before God, and the Lord, God, said to them: ‘My creations are drowning and you are singing before me?'”
You know people always like to read the Bible as a rule book, as a book that tells us what we should and shouldn’t do. But it seems to me that the Bible describes much more than it prescribes. Quite simply, it is filled with stories of what happens to people – what happens when they make good choices and what happens when they make bad choices.
And while many people of faith are quick to see God as someone who deals out punishment upon the wicked, it has always seemed to me that God doesn’t really have to punish us because the consequences of our flawed actions and bad choices are punishment enough.
What is especially tragic, however, is that it is often innocent people who pay the price when the Pharaohs of this world choose power over compassion and a concern for the welfare of all. And it is the poor who suffer most when human beings can’t figure out a way to solve their problems by some means other than shooting at or dropping bombs on one another. It is those at the bottom who are always the most vulnerable, not the Pharaoh’s of this world.
And yes, for a long time it was those Israelites enslaved in Egypt who were the ones who suffered most, but once liberated we dare not celebrate what that cost so many Egyptian fathers and sons and uncles and brothers….who cried out as the wheels of their chariots began to sink in the mud but who were not allowed to retreat because of the darkness that had overcome Pharaoh’s heart.
So on Friday we marked 19 years since 9/11…when 19 men affiliated with al -Qaeda hijacked four planes and turned them into weapons against the United States, killing 3,000 Americans. And I always like to remind folk that 15 of those men were citizens of Saudi Arabia, two were from the United Arab Emirates, one from Lebanon and one from Egypt. The pilots of all the planes were trained in the United States.
In response to that horrific day America declared its war on terror, a war fought primarily in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. According to a report out of Brown University this month, the cost of that war to the United States has been approximately 6.4 trillion dollars. As of a year ago over 800,000 people had been killed in it, 335,000 of them civilians. And a very conservative estimate says that 37 million people have been displaced by this war; it is more likely closer to 59 million.
But this sermon is not about whether all of that was and is a justified response to a horrific attack on 9/11, which we as a nation continue to grieve. Today all I’m saying is that as people of God…..as followers of a man who taught us to love even our enemies…..we have no business ever celebrating when there are dead bodies floating on the shoreline…..and we don’t get to avert our eyes from the reality of that either….because compassion demands that our eyes remain open to human suffering.
We are always called to stand with a God who weeps….who WEEPS….when God’s creations are drowning no matter who they are. For they.are God’s beloved children no less than we are.
So then when God looks through God’s tears and then turns to us and says, “I have heard the cries of my people. Whom shall I send?”may we respond, “Here I am Lord send me. Send me to be an agent of reconciliation and peace in this world. Send me to bind up the broken-hearted. Send me to comfort those who mourn. Send me to liberate the captives. Send me to care for the last and the least, the lost and the little. Send me to speak truth to power. Send me to make your boundless and bottomless love real to ALL people.”
When God cries out, “Whom shall I send?” may our response be “Here we are Lord. Send us.”