We Cannot Keep Still
This morning is World Communion Sunday, so the highlight of our worship this morning will be the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. But before we get there, I want us to experience a story that is key for understanding God’s covenant love for God’s people. We’re focusing on covenant this fall. Covenant is a sacred commitment to relationship, initiated by God for the sake of the other and it shapes our identity and our conduct. In a covenant, belonging shapes behavior. And we have to get those in the right order, otherwise we start thinking in terms of contracts. We don’t earn covenant. Covenant already exists because God initiates it and we live in it and through it and because of it.
So far we’ve remembered God’s covenant with Noah after the flood and God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah, that they will be blessed in order to be a blessing and that all the world will be blessed through them. Last week we saw how God’s covenant love, God’s promise to be with us always, played out in the life of Joseph when he was sold into slavery in Egypt. Joseph became powerful and saved Egypt from a famine, which lead his whole family to move to Egypt, where their descendants lived for generations. Hundreds of years later, there was a Pharaoh who did not remember Joseph. He had forgotten the story of his country’s past. The Egyptians began to feel threatened by these immigrants and enslaved them. God inspired a man named Moses to stand up to the Egyptian Pharaoh and persuade him to let the people go. After 10 devastating plagues Pharaoh relented and the people left Egypt and headed into the wilderness.
Let’s pick up the story in Exodus chapter 14, verse 5. That’s page 108 in the pew Bibles. If you don’t already own a Bible, please take that one home with you. Let’s listen in this story for the word and wisdom of God.
When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, the minds of Pharaoh and his officials were changed toward the people, and they said, “What have we done, letting Israel leave our service?” So he had his chariot made ready and took his army with him; he took six hundred elite chariots and all the other chariots of Egypt with officers over all of them. The Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he pursued the Israelites, who were going out boldly. <I’m going now to verse 10>
As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites looked back, and there were the Egyptians advancing on them. In great fear the Israelites cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone so that we can serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” But Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today, for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. But you lift up your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the Israelites may go into the sea on dry ground. Then I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them, and so I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army, his chariots, and his chariot drivers. Then the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I have gained glory for myself over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his chariot drivers.”
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.
From strength to strength, may we be strengthened. Thanks be to God.
Hundreds of years ago, God made a covenant with the ancestors of this group of people and here in this moment, God demonstrates that covenant love through rescue and victory. This is the decisive event that forms the identity of the ancient Hebrews as God’s people, and it’s the result of covenant. They are who they are because they have a covenant with God. This covenant action by God, this moment of salvation, brings them together in a way that they weren’t really before. This collective experience of being rescued by God shapes them, all of them together. They have a common story which connects them to God and each other. The key identity of God in the Old Testament is that THIS is the God who brought Israel out of slavery in Egypt. Throughout the rest of the Old Testament when God speaks to the people and identifies Godself, God most often says, “I am the God of your ancestors, the God who brought you out of slavery in Egypt.” God hears the cries of the oppressed and acts decisively on their behalf. The people cry out and God responds with magnificent deliverance. Glory! And yet, many of us struggle with this story.
One of the effects of living in an individualistic society is that we interpret everything from the standpoint of the individual. We want this story to mean that God is going to part the thing that feels like a Red Sea to me individually. But as my mentor the Rev. Dr. Marti Baumer likes to remind me, the Gospel is always personal but never individual. The Gospel is always personal but never individual. And while I know that I have experienced things that feel like miracles to me, that’s not what this story is about. This is not a story about God rescuing one person. It’s a bold assertion that God does not allow oppression and injustice to get the last word.
The problem with interpreting this particular story individually is that we all have times when we prayed and didn’t get the outcome we asked for, and so we feel like God didn’t show up. I’ve had times in my own life where I felt like God didn’t show up. I had no doubt that God COULD. I just didn’t know if God WOULD. I was afraid that my faith could not survive asking for something and not getting it, so I didn’t ask in the first place. I was so afraid of being disappointed that I kept hedging my bets.
But I have to tell you friends that I’m getting tired of hedging my bets. In a world where our national and international divisions are growing ever deeper and more ominous; where people are choosing between leaving their home or fighting in a war they feel is just plain wrong; where the color of your skin and the amount of money in your bank account are still the strongest predictors of whether you’ll die from Covid; where almost every woman I know, myself included, has experienced an assault on her personhood and dignity; where people can work full-time jobs and not afford to live; where human beings are bussed back and forth across the country as expendable pawns in a political chess game; where we continue to devise new weapons to destroy one another while simultaneously destroying ourselves by destroying our planet … in this world, friends, WE have some Red Seas in need of parting, and our sacred texts boldly claim that our God does that.
We tell this story exactly the way it’s written, without worrying about PROVING it archaeologically, because taking the story into ourselves forms us into the kind of people who are hard to intimidate. This story makes us brave and gives us hope and keeps us moving when we feel like we have nowhere to go. In this story, the people have no good option. They are facing unpassable chaos (as symbolized by the sea) with violence and oppression coming right up behind them. They’re caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. There is nothing for them to do here. They can’t swim and they can’t fight. And so they cry out to God. Moses tells them, “DO NOT BE AFRAID. Stand firm and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”
And he’s almost right. But not quite. They shouldn’t be afraid. God is going to deliver them. But here’s the problem: Moses also told them to keep still. And God responds with, “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to GO FORWARD.” Moses tells them to stay put and God tells them to get moving. They don’t need to be afraid. God is going to deliver them. But not while they are sitting still. When we are facing the chaotic unknown, we may just hear God telling us to go forward straight into it. Because what is impossible for humans is possible with God. (Luke 18:27)
Friends we cannot keep still. We cannot keep quiet. Imagine if Mary Magdalene had kept still. Imagine if Peter and Paul and James had kept still. Imagine if Saints Felicity and Perpetua and the rest of the early martyrs had kept still. Imagine if Martin Luther had kept still. Imagine if Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan Anthony and Lucy Stone had kept still. Imagine if Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman had kept still. Imagine if Dorothy Day had kept still. Imagine if Dr. King kept still. Imagine if Deitrich Bonhoeffer had kept still. Imagine if Archbishop Oscar Romero had kept still. Imagine if Mother Theresa had kept still.
Now I know you are saying, “But Pastor Beth I’m not Mary Magdalene or Frederick Douglass or Dr. King or Mother Theresa.” To which I say, “Not yet.” And we never will be if we keep still. The only way to become who God is calling us to be, who we long to be, who the world needs us to be, is by moving forward.
There’s a wonderful ancient Jewish story about this Red Sea moment. It’s not in the Bible, but the ancient rabbis tell it. It’s about a young man named Nashon who was the first to step into the waters of the Red Sea. He waded in up to his ankles, and the water didn’t move; up to his knees, up to his waist, up to his neck, and the water didn’t move. And as he took the step that would have put his head under water, the sea began to move.
The message of this story is that our infinitely creative God of Love is absolutely committed to liberating captives and may just have a solution that we never expected and could never have conjured through our own efforts. AND we are called to go forward even when we can’t see that solution yet.
We tell this story exactly the way it is written because we need it. Because it shapes us. Our stories shape us, as individuals and communities. And Lord knows this worlds needs disciples who are hard to intimidate. We tell this story exactly the way it is because we desperate need to be shaped by THIS story. I am personally, day by day, choosing to move forward with the God who parts Red Seas. Amen?
It’s so appropriate that we move to the Lord’s table this morning. Because when the Red Sea-Parting God, the God who will not let injustice continue forever, when that God comes to us in person, that God looks like … Jesus. As unexpected now as he was then. Surely a God who routs armies and rescues whole communities of people would come in power and put a decisive end to oppression. But no. Instead God comes as one of the oppressed, uneducated, underemployed. God comes as one of the disinherited. Because the true revolution always starts from below. God shows us what it looks like to love our enemies when we are weaker than they are. God shows us what it looks like to forgive when it’s pretty certain we’ll get taken advantage of again. God shows us what it looks like to share when we don’t feel like we have enough. God shows us what it looks like not to fight fire with fire, but to be actively non-violent. God show us what it looks like when greed and violence and religious hypocrisy do their worst to our very bodies and still don’t get the last word. That is who Jesus is. That is what we celebrate as we gather again around the table of Christ. And on this World Communion Sunday as Christians of all skin tones worship God in all languages, we remember that this table is big enough to set a feast for the whole world.
And so, Beloved, this is the joyful feast of the people of God, where people of all ages, races, and sexes — people in every type of body — come from the north, south, east, and west, and gather at this table with the Risen Christ, who is the host at all our tables.