Road to Freedom

Road to Freedom

Sunday, September 17, 2017
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost Year A
Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 19)

Focus Theme
Road to Freedom

Focus Prayer
God of freedom, you brought your people out of slavery with a mighty hand. Deliver us from our captivity to pride and indifference to the needs and gifts of others, that we may be ready to love as you have loved us, and to give even as we have received. Amen.

Focus Reading
Exodus 14:19-31

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.

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.

Focus Questions

1. How do you define, or at least describe, "faith"?

2. What do you "know" with your heart?

3. What does this story tell you about God?

4. How are faith and fear related?

5. What particular thing is God calling you to do today that requires you to step out in faith?

Reflection by Kate Matthews

People of faith tend to define--and experience--"faith" itself in different ways. While many people understand faith as an intellectual agreement with, and acceptance of, certain claims about God (one reason institutional churches have articulated a number of creeds throughout their history), they also connect their heads with their hearts, and ground their love for God in what they hold to be true about God. It is very important to them to be clear and even detailed about these intellectual claims, and sometimes to require assent to them.

Other folks, when speaking of faith, go first to the experience of trust in God, a trust that enables them to live their lives not in anxiety but with the conviction that God loves them and holds them precious in God's sight. Perhaps this kind of faith is not articulated in complex or sophisticated theological statements (and neither can it be required), but it too must be grounded in what a person "knows," or believes to be true about God.

Bogged down in questions

Reflecting on the meaning of faith may be a good point of entry into this text from the Book of Exodus. We could get hung up on questions about the miracle involved in the sea parting (including the naturalistic explanations that have been offered for it), or we could get bogged down (so to speak) in questions about all those dead Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea. Not unlike last week's story about the deaths of all those first-born children, this story prompts the question, "What about those Egyptians: doesn't God love them, too?"

In either case, we would be missing the main point of the people of Israel telling and re-telling, remembering this story about God's hand at work when they were absolutely "up against it," up against a wall of water that trapped them before the certainly awesome might of Pharaoh and his armies. This wasn't one army against another, however outnumbered and outgunned (or out-speared). This was a ragtag group of impoverished ex-slaves escaping their captors not by their own strength or wits or organizational skills or strategic planning, but by the power of God.

Well acquainted with Pharaoh

Can you imagine how they must have felt, their panic and terror, when the vast armies of Pharaoh appeared on the horizon, in hot pursuit? They had lived their entire lives under the heel of this mighty empire, so they were well acquainted with what it could do. However, they were still learning just what their God could do, and how small and powerless the mighty Egyptians would soon appear.

The people of Israel have told and re-told many stories in their long history, but this one, about the Exodus, is right at the heart of their great, over-arching story. This is the story that reminds them over and over again about who God is, and who they are in the light of God's compassion and care, who they are because God has a commitment to them, grounded in promises given long ago (back in the book of Genesis, we may recall, and the story of Abraham).

Remembering who and whose they are

If it wasn't clear to them when the plagues came and Pharaoh finally let them go (an amazing thing in itself, no doubt), surely the parting of a great sea of water and the washing away of the mightiest army in the world must have made an impression on the Hebrew people. Walter Brueggemann describes this narrative as "the powerful, compelling center of Israel's defining memory of faith," through which Israel comes to understand itself as "the beloved, chosen community of YHWH and the object of YHWH's peculiar and decisive intervention in public events."

And that is one reason the story is at the heart of our faith, too. With the voice of the later, Priestly writer so present in the text, it's possible, says Brueggemann, that Pharaoh himself can be understood as Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian oppressor during the exile of the Jewish people six centuries after the Exodus. But not just Nebuchadnezzar, and not just the sixth century B.C.: it's significant, writes Gary Anderson, that this Pharaoh, "unlike almost all other foreign kings in the Bible, however evil they may be, is not graced with a name." Thus, he can be identified with, and experienced as, every one of the "powers-that-be," every overwhelming, well-armed oppressor, for he is "as much a cipher for evil as a flesh-and-blood human being." If God and empire face off, the story reminds us, in any situation or time, God is always going to win.

God at the center of the story

If we listen to the story that way, with a heart of trust in God's promises and God's care, we experience God as the main actor in the story, and realize that it tells us about God's intention for God's people. Even at its height, the nation of Israel was never the great power that Egypt, Babylon and Assyria were. They must have always felt small and vulnerable next to those super-powers.

And yet they claimed this particular place under the watchful eye and persistent leading of God, and they had a story that backed up that trust and provided a firm foundation for their faith in God, and their self-understanding and identity as well. James Newsome says that this is a story "of the utter commitment of God to Israel, and of Israel's fearful doubt. As the story is crafted in this reading, it is a narrative 'toward faith.'"

Accepting the leader sent by God

So the people's understanding of God and their identity, and their trust in God, were inevitably strengthened by this experience of deliverance. But so were their understanding of their future, and their acceptance of the leader that God had sent to take them toward that future, that Promised Land.

When the people entered that passage-way carved from the water (another vivid scene from the movie, "The Ten Commandments"), James Newsome writes, they were "a group of refugees, terrified and in panic," but they "emerged on the other shore in awe and in an attitude of faith in Yahweh for this great miracle of salvation." Scholars agree that this is another message at the heart of this story: the acceptance of Moses as the leader sent to them by God, worthy of their trust even if he takes them out from the "security" of slavery into a wilderness of possibility.

Stepping out in faith

So what do we learn from this story from long ago that will strengthen our faith, our trust in God today? We learn not to let our fear stop us from "stepping out in faith," as the saying goes. Gerald Janzen writes elegantly about this kind of faith, which is "the willingness to pick up and carry one's fear in one's bosom like a weaned child (compare Psalm 131) and go forward in the direction that trust calls for."

If fear keeps us trapped in our suffering, then faith as trust is definitely a gift of God: The people of Israel, Janzen writes, are saved from "their fear and their doubt," not just from the Pharaoh's armies. Whether we're facing a foe as formidable as an ancient empire or as immobilizing as our own fear, God is there to deliver us.

A faith moved to prayer

In fact, the people of Israel, Gary Anderson writes, would look back to this great story every time they would pray, not only in praise for past deeds but trusting in God to come through again and again to "repair matters when things began to break down." For example, centuries later, during the Babylonian Exile, they remembered God's past deeds of deliverance and counted on God's goodness, and they didn't hesitate to remind God of both in their prayers of petition.

This leads us back to the question of Moses' leadership and his role in the deliverance of his people (not just his own freedom, but that of his people--we recall that he had escaped Egypt but returned to follow God's instructions on behalf of the Hebrews). James Newsome points to another lesson within the text, about the ways of God, at work on behalf of the people, and about our own role in freeing the captives of the world: "Yahweh does not work in splendid isolation orÖfrom afar. Yahweh works through the special agent who has been designated to act on Yahweh's behalf." In this case, Moses, but in every age, God calls leaders and agents to act on behalf of those who are held prisoner.

Bringing liberty to the captives

This, then, is the story of which we are a part, a story that, for Christians, continues all the way to Jesus, who declared in his mission statement (in Luke 4) that he had come to "bring liberty to the captives." Walter Brueggemann sees this sense of call in Jesus, to free captives and heal the sick, to lift up the oppressed and proclaim God's favor--the "great wonders" we see in Jesus, as God's own "acts of emancipation and transformation" in every age. That must mean that we, too, are called to bring such good news in our own turn, in our day.  

This God, the one we trust, is the God who makes--and keeps--promises, not only long ago, to Abraham and Sarah, to Moses on the mountaintop, to the people crossing the Red Sea, but to us, a people of faith, a faith that is trust grounded in who we understand God to be. With that trust, and undeterred by fear, we step out, then, in faith to be those "special agents" of God's love and care in the world.

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) and an additional reflection are both at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) retired last year after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For Further Reflection

Louise Haskins, 20th century, "The Gate of the Year"
"Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be a better light, and safer than a known way."

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, 20th century
"Believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it."  

Presbyterian Church USA, Confession of 1967
"Life is a gift to be received with gratitude and a task to be pursued with courage."

Bruce Epperly, Christian Century 1-26-10
"When author Madeleine L'Engle was asked, 'Do you believe in God without any doubts?' she replied, 'I believe in God with all my doubts.'"

Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom: Autobiography of Nelson Mandela. 20th century
"I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one's head pointed toward the sun, one's feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death."

M. Scott Peck, 20th century
"The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers."  

Madeleine L'Engle, 20th century
"Some things have to be believed to be seen."

Paulo Freire, 20th century
"We make the road by walking."

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