September 17, 2017 — Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Rev. Alison Quin
Exodus – The Cost and Promise of Liberation
“The history of the world shows us, that the deliverance of the children of Israel from their bondage, is not the only instance, in which it has pleased God to appear in behalf of the oppressed and distressed nations, as the deliverer of the innocent, and of those who call upon his name. He is as unchangeable in his nature and character, as he is in his wisdom and power. . . the God of heaven and earth is the same, yesterday, and to-day and for ever.”
–Absalom Jones, A Thanksgiving Sermon preached at St. Thomas’ Church in Philadelphia on January 1, 1808, the occasion of the abolition of the slave trade.
There was a striking image in the coverage of Hurricane Irma—the image of Tampa Bay emptied of water. The storm was so powerful that it emptied the bay and the seabed was exposed for many hours. Despite warnings about how powerful the waves would be when the water returned, people were irresistibly drawn to the bay because it was so extraordinary.
The image made me think of the Exodus—the story of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea on dry ground. “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 Egyptian army, with horses and chariots, pursued the Israelites but were caught by the returning waters and drowned.
The Exodus is one of the great stories of Scripture—a small, oppressed group somehow escaping from the powerful and brutal forces of empire. The horses and chariots represented military might—something like armored tanks today. The Israelites on foot with families and herds would have been completely helpless against them. But they were miraculously delivered by the parting of the Red Sea and the subsequent drowning of the Egyptians.
Is the story of the Exodus myth or history? Interestingly, there are clay tablets called the Amarna letters that record a tribe called the Habiru leaving Egypt at about the time of the Exodus, so the story may well have historical roots. But the importance of the story does not depend on its historical accuracy. A Greek statesman named Solon once wrote, “Myth is not about something that never happened. It is about something that happens over and over again.”
The Exodus is a powerful story that recurs in history—the story of an oppressed people crying out for help. The Bible makes the claim that God hears those cries and intervenes on the side of justice.
Before we look at God’s role in liberating people, I want to acknowledge that there is a horrifying aspect to this story as well–the drowning of the Egyptians and the death of the firstborn children, which was the 10th plague. It is wonderful that God is on the side of the oppressed and is a God of justice. But what does it say about God that God was willing to accomplish liberation at the cost of Egyptian lives?
We are not the first generation to be deeply troubled by God’s use of violence in the Exodus narrative. A medieval commentator addressed the subject in a famous midrash. When the heavenly council of angels saw the Egyptians drowning, they rejoiced. But God rebuked them saying, “My creatures, the work of my hands, are dying in the sea. How can you be singing a song of praise?”
In other words, God punishes injustice, but God grieves over the cost—the loss of lives.
For me, the midrash helps a little, but it doesn’t fully resolve the underlying contradiction—if we believe God is love, how can God use violence to achieve God’s purposes?
As a pacifist, I can’t justify or condone this violence and I can’t explain it either. But Scripture does not always present clear and simple truths. The Bible reflects the ambiguity and complexity of our lives. Sometimes good comes out of evil, or good comes at a terrible price. Good and evil, light and dark coexist in our pysches and in the world, at least for now.
Despite this dark note, I still see the story of the Exodus as a stunning revelation of a God who cares about suffering and oppression, and intervenes to set people free.
For thousands of years, this story has given hope to oppressed people everywhere, from Jews in periods of persecution, to the exploited poor in Central and South America, from the African diaspora to victims of human trafficking.
I just came across a sermon preached by Absalom Jones on January 1st, 1808, the day that the slave trade was abolished under the Constitution. Absalom Jones was the first African American to be ordained in the Episcopal Church, in 1804, and he founded an independent black congregation in Philadelphia under the auspices of the Episcopal Church. His feast day is celebrated on February 13, the date of his death in 1818. In his sermon, he spoke about the God of the Exodus witnessing his people taken from their country in chains, dying by the thousands in slave ships, sold like cattle and being abused by masters and overseers. He saw God’s hand in the abolition of the trade—God is a God who intervenes to deliver his suffering people.
How powerful it is for all of us to remember that God sees the suffering in the world, including our own. And how awesome it is to remember that God cares deeply about God’s people, and will intervene on behalf of those who are oppressed.
God sets people free—not only from outside forces, but also from the inner forces that hold us captive.
Even after the Israelites were physically free, they were still captive to fear and doubt—they could not immediately embrace their freedom. The forty years they spent wandering in the wilderness, with much fear and doubt and resistance, helped prepare them to live as free people when they reached the promised land.
They had to work through their terror of the unknown. Slavery in Egypt may have been horrible, but at least it was predictable. “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.”
The forces that hold us in captivity, whether they are the external forces of political and economic oppression, or the inner demons of fear, doubt and inertia are powerful.
But God, the God of the Exodus, cares deeply for each of us and deeply wants us to be free.
Where do you see oppressed and afflicted people in our world? Can we open our hearts to them, and join them in crying out to God for deliverance?
What part of you is still not free? Where do you need deliverance? Can you cry out for God to intervene and trust that God will hear you and respond?
Let the story of the Exodus, even with its dark side be a beacon of hope to all people seeking liberation.