Monday, September 29, 2014

up to my eyeballs--a sermon on Crossing the Red Sea

Rev. Teri Peterson
Up To My Eyeballs
Exodus 14.10-14, 19-29
28 September 2014, NL1-4
Harvest 1-4

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 and let us 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.’
 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. 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.

It’s been years since Pharaoh first ordered our boys thrown into the river; decades of turning the water of life into the fear of extinction. We’ve lost people—precious people, boys and girls, men and women—to the river, and to fear. We’ve lost people to overwork and exhaustion. We were ready to set our faces to a new way, to leave behind that life of doing the same thing day in and day out, that life of constant disappointment that things were not different. We were ready to leave that life of fear that we might be just a few years from disappearing.

But look at us now. One look back and…well…let’s just say that with water on one side and an army on the other, the good old days of a few weeks ago are looking much better. All we want now is to go home, honestly.

But home is on the other side of Pharaoh’s army.

Remember how cozy it was? How full of life and laughter? There was barely room to fit us all in, and we had plenty to eat, and songs to sing. Why did we ever want to leave that?

Of course, our songs were sung with tired cracking voices, since we spent our days working for Pharaoh, being despised by the Egyptians, and constantly being on the lookout for terror. We ate our fill, but it was always the same stuff. Our bodies were sore, our spirits broken, our minds tired from trying to figure out how to get to a new place on the same roads we’ve always used. We’ve worked so hard just to stay alive.

But still…compared to this place, with the water on one side and the army on the other, it was pretty great.

I can’t believe Moses brought us from one river of death to another. We can barely look at the water, it’s been a symbol of chaos and fear for so long. So we keep looking back, but that sea of chariots is no better.

This seemed like a good idea at the time, but we’re having second thoughts.

And somehow in the midst of it all is our leader, saying ridiculous things like “Don’t be afraid” and “stand firm and see what the Lord will do.” How can we possibly look at what the Lord will do, when we’re busy looking back there?

A few people are talking about what we’ve already seen. Our God and Pharaoh have been battling for weeks already. Someone is remembering the day the Egyptians were up to their eyeballs in frogs, and how bad they smelled when they all died at once. And the day locusts ate all the Egyptian fields but didn’t touch ours. The Lord has definitely been busy. Maybe he can do it again.

After all, it’s not like we can go back, I suppose. So might as well tear our eyes away from the army, or rather away from the home we remember back there, and look forward instead. The waves on the sea look rough…we’re not really water people, and this water seems particularly difficult. But it’s the only way we’ve got, so we might as well look for what God will do.

Speaking of looking, there is someone awfully close to the water. Almost looks like he’s up to his eyes in it. Except…well, either he’s insane or I am. Or God is. But it looks like we’re moving between the waves somehow. It’s terrifying to look around and see nothing but chaos. We can’t see much beyond the next few steps, and of course who knows how long this path goes? Is it dry the whole way? What’s on the other side…if there is another side? The water is churning and the spray is salty on our lips. But the pillar of the Lord is ahead, so we keep walking, and walking, and walking. Some are trying to run, others are being carried along. It seems this will work best if we all move together.

This will be a story for the ages. Our children’s children will tell about how God made a way, about the mighty power of the Lord who really does act right before our very eyes. They will remember how Moses got his name—because he was drawn out of the water—and then how God brought us to a new home and a new life, right through the water. We will have to remind them that when they cannot see what God is doing, it helped us to remember what God had already done. We will have to remind them that sometimes looking back is more hopeless than looking at the impossible way forward. We will have to remind them that it took everyone moving together to get safely across.

Most of all, we will have to remember that it is one step at a time, through the water into the promise of life in God’s home. It turns out that water wasn’t the death of us after all—it was our path to life instead. God found us, and now we follow.

No looking back now—the water stands between us and the old ways. The only thing to do is to let it wash over, then keep walking, telling the story of how we are up to our eyeballs in grace. This is the day the Lord has made…and though we don’t know where we will be at the end the day, we will still rejoice and be glad in it!

May it be so.


Monday, September 15, 2014

kneads together--a reflection for September 21

(published in the Abingdon Creative Preaching Annual 2014)

Exodus 16

The Israelites were in the wilderness just six weeks when they started living in the past. Hungry and cranky, realizing they don’t know where they’re going or how they’ll get there or how long it will take, with no established religion or government, no social safety net, and no leftovers—they complain. “If only we had died in Egypt where we sat around and ate as much as we wanted!” (Ah, flawed memories!) But God again listens to their cries and provides abundance they could never have imagined.

This is the central wilderness experience, the first of many lessons in the making of a people. God said, “I will be your God,” called them “my people,” then had to teach them what that means—they had to work the visioning process and discern a mission statement (“Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself” (Deut 6:5, Lev 19:18) seems pretty good!). They had to wander in order to discover that God would lead them if they would follow. They had to look back without rose-colored glasses so they could look forward with hope. They had to learn that God is love and discern who God was calling them to be. This first lesson is learning to rely on God’s goodness and abundance. It sounds cliché and naïve now, and I suspect then too—but alone out in the desert, the Israelites literally depended on God for their daily bread, their safety, their lives.

Even as they learned the stark truth that we’re all dependent on God despite our perceived independence, they learned of God’s faithfulness. They learned that hoarding doesn’t get us anywhere. They learned that God’s abundance comes along with justice—not whatever I want, but what we, the community, need. They learned to call on God to hold up God’s end of the covenant, and that God will. They started to learn what faithfulness looks like from our side. They learned that they were chosen to be a community of God’s people, a blessing to the world, not just ragtag wanderers. Most importantly, they learned that the journey from “if only” to “I AM” goes through a question: “what is it?”

They weren’t used to being provided for—it takes time to get slavery out of your system, time to turn from Pharaoh’s non-people into God’s people, time to figure out that God is not just another Pharaoh, time to learn trust and reliance, time to know providence—God will provide, even if we don’t recognize that providence at first.

What is it? (manna) turns out to be heavenly, good enough for 40 years of nourishment. The journey from “If only” to “my people,” from whiner to baker, involves lots of “what is it?” Throughout our whole journey God provides, though we may not see, understand or have words for it. God kneads us together, a community learning to trust, learning to look around and ahead rather than only back, learning to bake.