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The Passing of Helplessness

(Breana van Velzen)

Exodus 14:19-31

· Exodus,Borders,Justice

Exodus 14:19 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. 20 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.

21 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. 22 The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. 23 The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. 24 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. 25 He clogged[a] 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.”

26 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.” 27 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. 28 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. 29 But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.

30 Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. 31 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.

Please pray with me, Ephesus: God of Israel, who created Egypt and Palestine and Rome, we ask you to teach us peace. We ask you to teach us to know the difference between waiting and hiding. We ask you to teach us when to listen and when to speak. Help us hear your word now, Lord, and may this meditation be pleasing to you. In Jesus’s name, Amen.

Good morning, Ephesus. Thank you for once again allowing me to speak in this pulpit. It is always an honor.

Have you ever held vigil over someone in the hospital, unsure if they would make it through their surgery, if they had cancer or not, if the fever would break? Unsure if you could hope?

Have you ever borne witness to such a vigil? Seen the exhaustion etched in the lines of a loved one’s face as they tucked the blankets tighter, or dimmed the lights, or bowed in prayer?

It is in the tension at the edge of life and death, despair and hope, that we meet defining moments. When we hold our mother’s hand as she finds out whether or not the tumor is malignant, or watch a sister turn ashen as her labor starts, or feel that infinite second between heart beats, we must decide what we will do next, who we will choose to be.

It is at this cusp that the Hebrew find themselves in our passage today.

A few verses before, they called out to Moses in doubt. Who wouldn’t? After ten plagues and four hundred years of slavery, the Hebrew were nearly free. Pharaoh let them go. The Egyptians gave them all their wealth.

It seemed so surreal.

Until Pharaoh sent his army. Then the Israelites knew they had to flee. They wanted their freedom. They would traverse this wild desert toward a land of milk and honey. They would live.

Except for the tiniest of problems. A sea between the Israelites and their freedom. On one side, they were facing an army of enraged former slaveholders. A group so bent on keeping the conditions as superior and so concerned that they would lose their power, that they would face the wrath of God and kill their former slaves. Pharaoh’s hatred and fear overcame even his grief at the loss of his son. On the other side, the Israelites faced death by water. Even Michael Phelps would have struggled to swim very far, at night, the Red Sea.

Could you imagine having your hopes dashed like that? And yet, they still turned to Moses. In those few verses, they said “Moses, wouldn’t it be better to turn back? We’ll be okay. We know slavery. We’re familiar with it.” Maybe we won’t die.

And Moses responded “do not fear”. He was calling them to have faith in God.

For did God not defeat the Egyptians before they even began pursuit? Were they not already broken? Was God not leading the Israelites in a pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day?

If the Creator of the universe told me to have faith, I would. Right? PAUSE

The Israelites’ fear was so great that they forgot that the God of Abraham, the God of Noah, the God of the ten plagues, of miracles, was on their side. Had told them to have faith. Had asked for their trust.

The Israelites took their liberation for granted. They wanted it to be straightforward and easy. Later in Exodus, we will see them unhappy with the changes brought by their freedom. For now, they cannot see a way out. There is no way for them forward.

And we sit here this Sunday morning wondering how they could have done that. Surely they knew the might of God?

I tell you right now, we are all guilty of doing the same thing.

God asks for our trust, and we do not give it. We forget how mighty our God is. We forget that God created the tiniest of bacteria and the very air that we breathe. We think our wars, our politics, our history, and our culture are more important than what the Holy Spirit calls us to. We think they are more powerful than the promise God has given us, inherited through the covenant God made with Israel and our adoption as Gentiles. God is our God, and we are God’s people. God will not abandon us. God will not liberate us only to lead us to death. In God is only life.

And because we refuse to see God as bigger and deeper than our strife and our power here on Earth, we do not trust that God can get us through. We do not follow the Holy Spirit into a new life. We cling to our sins in the past—those things that we have always done or always thought. We want what is familiar. We cannot imagine past our obstacles that life on the other side of the Red Sea could be better than the slavery of our past.

Or perhaps we identify with the Egyptians in this story, and we cannot forget the fear of the Other or our guilt or see the way through changing times.

That’s only human. All of us have that desire. Where it becomes a problem is when we let our sin stand between us and life. It is a problem when we embrace death over God’s liberating power. It becomes a sin when our desire to cling to the familiarity of our bonds causes harm to ourselves or others.

I don’t know if any of you have ever heard of the Arizona Minute Men. They stand for what they believe are American values such as keeping God in schools, freedom, and protecting our nation. They formed during the Bush administration, and they have gained purchase in the desert soil. Many people think of the Minute Men as heroes. They are largely believed to be the organization responsible for much of our current immigration proposals around building a wall and using more force at the border.

I lived in Phoenix, Arizona for a short time. I have family there. I distinctly remember two facts about the Minute Men that I learned while living in Phoenix: they dump out any water they find in the desert, and they are known to shoot at men, women, and children at the border. Several of their members were arrested for murder and sexual assault between 2009 and now.

Here is what I know about our southern border in Arizona: the majority of land in AZ is desert. The Tonto National Forest is called a forest because of a desert scrub bush that looks like the starved fifth cousin of a butterfly bush. It is sand, cactuses, and brown rock. When I moved to AZ, I felt surrounded by mountainous piles of bleached bones. The desert is littered with shoes, toys, clothes, and other evidence of people no longer living. The Tonto National Forest becomes the Sonoran Desert to the south and the Mohave Desert to the north. These deserts extend into Mexico. The border is rife with human traffickers, child rapists, and border patrol. Often times people run to border patrol to request asylum from the U.S. because they would be killed in their own country. The desert is a harsh environment.

Without water, people die. It is a well-known practice for desert dwellers to put out water for travelers.

Should any human being die because they crossed a political boundary? I don’t think our God, a God of grace, love, mercy, and justice, would celebrate the Minute Men removing life-saving water from the desert. I do not think that God would ever once forget that these beloved children of God are God’s own creatures, just as beloved as yourselves.

These men, many of whom are Christians, forgot the humanity of the people they encountered. They forgot their own humanity. They could not envision a nation in which we welcome the stranger, even if only for a short time. Their fear far outweighed any other consideration.

This is an example of us clinging to our fear and our sin. There are less extreme examples of us doing so in our everyday lives, that’s true. But how often do we forget the image of God in others because we are so afraid of losing our own freedom and liberation? How often do we create narratives of others, painting them as enemies so that we might survive on our own power?

Do we really think that all of the Israelites saw the Red Sea and did not consider “family first” and how to best survive the onslaught of weapons and water?

Do not forget, God says, that you once were slaves in Egypt, and I freed you.

Do not forget, Ephesus, that we were also the Egyptians in the story, and God freed the Israelites.

Church, we need to stop standing in the path of our own liberation.

We cannot be free from our sin and free to live into the community that God invited us into unless we learn to trust that God will protect us and that God can make a way out of no way.

That is exactly what God did with the Israelites. They let go of their fear and trusted in God and Moses to somehow lead them across a dangerous sea. The passage says that the angel of God, and the pillar of fire and cloud that was God leading the Israelites to freedom stood between them and the Egyptian army. Not only that, God caused their wheels to clog. They panicked. God had Moses raise up his arms and part the waters of the Red Sea so that the Israelites could cross safely over. It took all night. It was probably muddy, grueling, slow work. It may have felt like it would never end. Anything would be better than this.

But the Israelites kept in mind that God went before them and behind them. God’s presence never left them while they were in the desert. God was with them, provided for them, and protected them. They faced their fear of death. They took a risk on an unknown, terrifying future.

As the Israelites finished crossing, God tossed the Egyptians into the sea. Not one escaped.

The Israelites were liberated.

When we accept God’s invitation to trust, to be a part of the body of Christ, we are taking a risk. We may think that this is a one and done deal, but transformation is never finished. We cannot see into the future, so we are always having to take that chance.

Our world is frightening. In the past few weeks, hurricanes demolished the Gulf Coast and Caribbean, North Korea successfully tested long range missiles, there are protests all over the country that are far too familiar, and there have been several shootings of young people in Durham. Many of us feel our own control slipping out of our grasp, or that we live in a world we do not recognize.

This is one of those moments where we get the chance to decide who we want to be. We can choose to trust that God has gone before us and will come behind us. We have to examine ourselves and decide if we are going to be the Egyptians, who angry at their loss of power and way of life hunted the Israelites after enslaving them, or who like the Hebrew people chose at the water’s edge to enter the desert and find their freedom.

We can choose to embrace change. What would it be like for church to look like neighbors having a meal together, or two very different congregations joining in worship together more than once a year? What would it be like for our denominational differences to teach us cohesion as a body rather than a division of resources and beliefs? What would it be like for us not to be worried about singing loudly or being rejected when we reach out to new members of the community?

One of the best witnesses of God’s joy I have ever seen was an older gentleman in my home congregation dancing in the sanctuary. Now, we’re good Baptists in Wilmington, so everyone turned to look at him. He had his hands uplifted to the Lord; he twirled as he sang the hymns; he stomped one foot and clapped. Most of all, his face was alight with joy in praise. He danced every Sunday, and eventually people began sitting near him so they could clap and sing and smile with him.

St. Andrews Society here in Durham does church by partnering with local farmers to glean the fields so that people who don’t have enough to eat can have fresh vegetables. At first, most churches and farmers thought they were crazy. Who would want the leftovers on the field? Who would want them for free? But St. Andrews kept going, and now they feed quite a bit of the Triangle in the winter months.

These are people who have chosen to respond to the unknown with love. Sometimes our risks fail. The first nine plagues were not enough to convince the Pharaoh to let go of the Israelites. Even after the tenth plague, Pharaoh changed his mind. But God.

God will never let us go, and God will never leave us. God will guide us through our wildernesses and make a way when we see no way.

I encourage us, church gathered at Ephesus, as Durham dances in protest and pride, as we feed the hungry, as we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month starting today, let us go forth into the wilderness afraid but trusting. Let us go forth in hope and community. Let us go forth between walls of death, leaving our chains behind us, into something new and free and promised.

Please pray with me:

God you are our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble. May the You be our refuge as our nation continues to fracture and our neighbors face danger. Give us strength to be the refuge our community needs. May we seek to have the strength to overcome these times of trouble in ways that glorify you and live into our calling to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
3 though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging. Yea, we will not fear to do the right thing or to stretch ourselves to grow. We will not fear as hurricanes beat our shores and fires assault the land. We will not fear to give help when it is needed, and we will not fear to reach out, lest we be rejected. Teach us hope, Lord.

7 God almighty, you are with us;
God of Jacob, our fortress. You give us what we need, o God. You cause us to wrestle with you and ourselves. As we wrestle ourselves, we find our doubts. We find our fears. We find out the dark parts of who we are. Help us to also remember that as with Jacob, you make us better. We learn from our doubts and our flaws. We learn to trust in you, Lord, just as Jacob did.8  
9 You make wars cease
to the ends of the earth.
You break the bow and shatter the spear;
You burn the shields[d] with fire. We know that you are a God of shalom. Let your peace and wholeness be part of our work, Lord. Help us to know what it is we are seeking together. Help us to know that in our neighbor, whom we often see as the enemy, that you are there, too. Help us to break our bows and shatter our spears as we learn to trust in you and each other rather than in fear and defensiveness. We pray for a day when there is no more war, no more violence, no more suffering at the hands of other humans. Help us to be still, Lord. Help us know you. You are the alpha and omega.

Amen.

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