Sermon Seeds: Road to Freedom
Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 19
Exodus 14:19-31 with Psalm 114
or Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21
Genesis 50:15-21 with Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13
Additional commentary on Matthew 18:21-35
Road to Freedom
by Kathryn Matthews Huey
People of faith often 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 the church has shaped a number of creeds throughout its 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, however, very important to them to be clear and even detailed about these intellectual claims, and 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, but it too must be grounded in what a person “knows,” or believes to be true about God.
Reflecting on the meaning of faith may be a good point of entry into this text. 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. 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. 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). 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” (Introduction to the Old Testament).
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” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts). If God and empire face off, the story reminds us, in any situation or time, God is always going to win.
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 the story “tells 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'” (Texts for Preaching Year A).
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” (Texts for Preaching Year A). 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.
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 beautifully 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 in a double sense. Not only are they delivered from the power of Egypt but they are also delivered from the power of their fear and their doubt” (Exodus, Westminster Bible Companion). 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.
In fact, the people of Israel, Gary Anderson writes, look back to this great story every time they pray: “Israel comes to know her God in this stupendous fashion so that she can witness through her praise to his beneficent nature (so Exod. 15), but also so that she can be moved to prayers of petition that God would repair matters when things began to break down.” Centuries later, during the exile, they could remember and trust God still, for Israel “can have the temerity to remind God, in moments of crisis and lamentation, of his prior acts of fealty” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts).
This leads us back to the question of Moses’ leadership and his role in the deliverance of his people (not just himself, but his people – we recall that he had escaped Egypt but returned to follow God’s instructions on behalf of the people). James Newsome points to another lesson within the text, about the ways of God, “about the nature of God’s activity in human life in general,” and our role in freeing the captives of the world: “Yahweh does not work in splendid isolation or…from afar. Yahweh works through the special agent who has been designated to act on Yahweh’s behalf” (Texts for Preaching Year A).
This is the story of which we are a part, a story that, for Christians, continues to Jesus, who declared in his mission statement (in Luke 4) that he had come to “bring liberty to the captives.” Walter Brueggemann writes that “the wonders of Jesus are understood as parallel acts of emancipation and transformation wherein Jesus enacts the wonders that properly belong to God” (Introduction to the Old Testament). This God 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 in faith to be those “special agents” of God’s love and care in the world.
For further reflection:
A story from Jim Wallis:
“In South Africa in 1987, Nelson Mandela was still in prison, and the world thought for good. School children were being killed daily by government police, and the struggle seemed to be at a standstill. I met a 14-year-old boy who was, like many there, organizing in elementary and high schools. I asked him if he was optimistic for the future and he said, ‘Yes.’ I asked him if he thought there would be a new, free South Africa someday, and he stated to me matter-of-factly, ‘I shall see to it personally.’ …There is simply no other alternative than for each person to see to it personally.”
Also, a website reader of this reflection drew an excellent parallel between Moses, who went back to Egypt to help his people, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who returned to Germany from safety in the United States during World War II. Bonhoeffer’s courage cost him his life; he is the source of the phrase, “the cost and joy of discipleship” in our United Church of Christ Statement of Faith.
Louise Haskins, 20th century, “The Gate of the Year” (corrected from John of the Cross)
“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.”
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.'”
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.”
Paulo Freire, 20th century
“We make the road by walking.”
In our heated political climate, we often hear the national conversation move toward “values” issues, or at least those related to reproduction and sexuality. Much of the conversation will claim a faith basis, especially a Christian one, for whatever stand is taken. Even if we leave the question of the separation of church and state aside for a moment, it’s disturbing that so many people, including communities of faith, focus on these issues and choose to occupy themselves more with judging people based on sexual standards (not well justified by the actions of Jesus himself) than with the heart of the gospel.
For example, if we spend enough time making judgments about who’s worthy of being included in the life of the church (based on the above issues), we don’t have time to confront the challenge of the gospel about many other things, like forgiveness. Forgiving one another is an expectation just as difficult as those around money and possessions, and equally ignored, even though they’re both at the heart of the gospel and the heart of the life of Jesus. However, when you think about the folks in your church, can you imagine the longing in their hearts for forgiveness and the struggle in those same hearts to forgive those who have hurt them? How many people come into church bearing heavy burdens of anger and resentment, and guilt, too? How much are we helping “the little ones” with this human difficulty that persists in every age and every setting of the church, including our own hearts as we step into the pulpit?
Each and every one of us has been like the first servant who has received grace beyond measure. As Thomas Long describes this man’s situation, it’s “something like saying that a lowly mail-room clerk owed the CEO of IBM a ‘bazillion dollars.’ It was hard to know who was more foolish – the slave, for getting into that size debt, or the king, for extending that sort of credit line to a slave” (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion). The immediacy and depth of hypocrisy of this same servant when the tables are turned and he has the opportunity to forgive would be laughable if it did not describe us so well. How good are our measuring scales when considering how much we have been forgiven next to how much we have been injured by others? What is at the core of our failure, or refusal, to forgive?
It seems that last week’s text (Matthew 18:15-20), the passage immediately preceding this one, speaks to the understandable need for the injured party in any dispute to be listened to. Grace may be abundant and freely given, but it isn’t cheap in the sense of being without considerable worth. Like air and water, it is both precious and necessary to life. Therefore, if someone is deeply sorry and has truly heard the pain and injury they have caused, how many times should they be forgiven? What does forgiveness need to look like in the life of the church and in our own lives? How does forgiveness nurture the health and well-being not only of the community but within the heart and soul of the one who forgives as well as the one who is forgiven? Do we forgive begrudgingly, because of a commandment, or because we have known forgiveness ourselves? Again, Long: “We know too well that the little boat in which we are sailing is floating on a deep sea of grace and that forgiveness is not to be dispensed with an eyedropper, but a fire hose” (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion). Do you dispense forgiveness with “an eyedropper,” or with “a fire hose”?
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews Huey serves as Dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
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.
When Israel went out from Egypt,
the house of Jacob from a people of strange language,
Judah became God’s sanctuary,
Israel became God’s dominion.
The sea looked and fled;
Jordan turned back.
The mountains skipped like rams,
the hills like lambs.
Why is it, O sea, that you flee?
O Jordan, that you turn back?
O mountains, that you skip like rams?
O hills, like lambs?
Tremble, O earth, at the presence of God,
at the presence of the God of Jacob,
who turns the rock into a pool of water,
who turns the flint into a spring of water.
Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?” So they approached Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, ‘Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’ Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, “We are here as your slaves.” But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.
Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21
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.
The enemy said, ‘I will pursue, I will overtake,
I will divide the spoil, my desire shall have its fill of them.
I will draw my sword, my hand shall destroy them.’
You blew with your wind, the sea covered them;
they sank like lead in the mighty waters.
“Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods?
Who is like you, majestic in holiness,
awesome in splendor, doing wonders?”
Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand;
and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing.
And Miriam sang to them:
“Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.”
Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13
Bless God, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless God’s holy name.
Bless God, O my soul,
and do not forget all God’s benefits —
who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the Pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good as long as you live
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
God works vindication
and justice for all who are oppressed.
God made known God’s ways to Moses,
and God’s acts to the people of Israel.
God is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
God will not always accuse,
nor will God be angry forever.
God does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is God’s steadfast love towards those who fear God;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far God removes our transgressions from us.
As a father and mother have compassion for thier children,
so God has compassion for those who fear God.
Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarrelling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.
We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.
Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written,
“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
and every tongue shall give praise to God.”
So then, each of us will be accountable to God.
Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Liturgical notes on the Readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel
The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.
The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.
A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.
During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings.