September 27, 2020 – Pastor Teressa Sivers
Exodus 14:10-14, 21-29
In 2006 I had the awesome joy of joining thousands of United Methodist clergy women from around the world in the great city of Chicago for the 50th anniversary of the ordination of women. In 1956, Maude Jensen blazed the trail, making it possible for so many women to follower her path. In 1961, Julia Torres Fernandez was the first Hispanic woman ordained a full clergyperson in the UMC. My brief google searches could not locate the first African American woman ordained clergy, but the first African America female bishop was consecrated in 1984, Bishop Leontine T.C. Kelly. Over the course of those five days in Chicago with thousands of clergy women, I was dumbfounded again and again and again as to how much of church history was NOT covered in my seminary courses. There were so many women I had never heard of, so many stories I had not been told. I believe we call that Alternative History. Toward the end of the week we were all given a ‘free afternoon,’ and I hurried up the waterfront from the convention center to the Field Museum for the traveling King Tut exhibit was visiting the museum. Like so many I was fascinated by Egypt and knew the Tut exhibit had a remarkable collection of artifacts. I was not disappointed. With the earbuds and recording device, I toured amazing relic after amazing relic, stunned that these items were over 3000 years old. And then, I believe it was while I was listening to the information about Tut’s amazingly preserved and beautifully crafted throne that it hit me. I knew whose butt had rested in this chair. I had no idea whose hands had brought it into being. Alternative History. Winston Churchill is famously quoted as saying, “History is written by the victors.” I would nuance that and say that history is written and controlled by those who sit in the seats of power.
Enter today’s very familiar Exodus story of the parting of the Red Sea—the crossing of the sea on dry ground. Though this narrative is NOT history as we understand history today, it is a story well preserved of those who were powerless. It is a story of nobodies by the world’s standards, the story of the empire’s slaves told overtop of the empire’s leaders. Here is indeed an Alternative View.”
That is the foundational message of the Red Sea story, and of the entire Exodus journey itself—the Alternative. The Exodus is about an alternative way of viewing the world, an alternative way of living in the world, an alternative view of power. This story, the book in our scriptures, asks questions such as “Where does true power reside?” “Who really has the victory?” “What kingdom, what realm, what community, what ‘kin-dom’ will we belong to?” Pharaoh or Yahweh? Empire or Kin-dom? Where do we put our trust? Is it in the ordered systems, the technological prowess, the military might and the complex culture and social structures of the empire? Or is it in this God, wild and reckless, creative and creating? Is it in this God who hangs up the weapon and turns it into a colored arch in the clouds? Is it in this God who called a barren older couple to be the parents of blessing for all the world? Is it in this God who whispered dreams in a younger son’s ears so he could rise up and save the world? Do we put our trust in this God who always calls us to the alternative way, alternative to the world’s way?
The Exodus story is over-the-top. It is great cinema waiting to happen. Whether you love Heston’s “The Ten Commandments” or prefer Dreamworks “The Prince of Egypt,” the Exodus story is great action drama. Just in chapter 14 of Exodus we have divine messengers, pillars of cloud and fire, light vying with darkness, a mighty wind, the sea cleft in two, walls of water rising up, a dry sea canyon stretching out into the dark and bogged-down chariots. Moses stands, a solitary and small figure, and yet resolute with hand stretched out over the turbulent waters. And in the end, the beaches are strewn with the bodies of the fallen. That is the struggle of the story—so much death, so much destruction.
Remember, this story is not history as we study history today. We cannot put on our Indiana Jones hat, grab our whip, and track down the exact location of the crossing, plot the ancient path the Israelites took through the sea. We aren’t even sure what body of water this is about. Though popularly translated as ‘Red Sea,’ the Hebrew literally means ‘sea of reeds’ or ‘sea of the end.’ No, this story isn’t about explaining natural phenomena or scuba diving for Egyptian chariot remains or finding this event on a timeline. This story is the history of identity. Who is our God? Who are we called to be this God’s people? What does our relationship look like? Our God truly does make a way out of no way. Do we trust it?
The story sets up this tension masterfully. The newly released slaves are camping by the water; new to freedom, completely without power or weapons or training, without any society structure. They are children on their first real journey. Here comes Pharaoh, the epitome of structure and order, running them down with a vast army. Chapter 14 tells us he has 600 of the best chariots, plus all the other chariots of Egypt, plus all the horses, plus all the army! The full might of Egypt is riding down these slaves—the full might of empire! The Israelites are completely trapped and helpless. They are terrified and their response is natural. “Why did you drag us out here to die? At least as slaves we could live!”
Moses responds with comfort and good news:
“Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians that you see today (this vast, vast army) you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”
Moses is not calling for passivity, quite the opposite. In a moment these terrified people will need to walk a treacherous path, into the dark sea canyon while walls of water hover over them to either side. Moses is calling for focus, for centering. He is calling them to open to the Alternative, this new path, a way out of no way. This path will change who they are forever, will transform their entire world. “Quiet your fears,” Moses calls. “Stand tall and be brave. The world does not have to be the empire’s way. Take this impossible, alternative road.” On the west shore they were slaves. On the east shore they are a newborn people, ready to be formed as an alternative community, a blessing for all the world.
Empire or Kin-dom? Which will we choose? Which holds dominance in our lives? The empire is impressive: law and order…for some, technological advancements…for those who can afford them, military might…to protect empire interests, complex culture and societal structures…to make clear the haves and the have nots. Empire controls all the stories, selects what will be heard, covers over the stories of those left out, pushed out, shoved down, oppressed, enslaved…killed. God’s Kin-dom can seem quite impossible in comparison. God’s paths often seem like no path at all, the impossible road. God’s journey can be a bit terrifying at times, leaving us fearful that our work, and even our very selves, could be swept away. And yet…and yet, this is the only journey to true freedom, to the Promised Land, to the new community with abundant life for all, that does away with haves and have nots. God’s alternative path is the path of life. Will we bravely walk it together?
Make no mistake, this is a life and death decision. Too many bodies are washing up on the shores of the empire’s way. Justice, protection, the basic essentials of life are denied to too many. God calls u to the difficult path, to stand firm on the alternative way, for the sake of the Breonna Taylors of this world, for the immigrant families separated on our borders, for those without access to health care or education, or nutritious foods or clean water. God calls us to call out the empire and its systems that discriminate and oppress and harm and destroy. I know the way forward seems impossible. How can we possibly made a difference with the empire? I’m sure the Israelites felt the same way, again and again in their Exodus journey. The full might of Pharaoh’s army stood behind them, and before them was darkness and noise and wind and sea. Nevertheless, they moved forward, step by step by step. And as the dawn broke, they were a new people.
We can be God’s new people too. We can journey together, step by step by step, down the alternative way of justice and righteousness and Beloved Community. We do this through prayer, naming the needs of this world and asking for God’s guidance toward change. We do this through studying the scriptures and holding God’s vision for the alternative community. We do this through engaging with our town or city or county or state; attending meetings and gatherings, listening, learning, volunteering, working, writing letters, moving with action. We return each week to worship, where we renew our focus and center again on God. Step by step by step, down the alternative road.
We shall overcome. We shall overcome.
Deep in my heart, I do believe. We shall overcome, we shall become, God’s Beloved Community.