Exodus 14 & 15; Mark 6:1-6
The story of the Exodus — the exiting of the Israelite slaves from Egypt— is probably one of the most well known stories in the Bible. Look in any children’s Bible, and you’ll see fantastic pictures of water 300 feet high split in the middle with all kinds of fish swimming back and forth as the Israelites walk through on dry land. And this isn’t by accident. It has been a transforming story from the very beginning— in fact it is this community— the faithful community of God that went through the exodus, that stepped out in faith to cross the Red Sea, that later began writing down their stories so that we have our Bible today. Tradition would say that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible; scholars tell us that it was a bit more varied than that with many authors over many years, but the stories we have definitely came from this exodus community.
This is a story that makes the powerful queasy and the marginalized stand up and cheer. Because here are a people who are saved from their oppressor. This is not a God who will use the same tactics as Pharaoh— force and violence and abuse and coercion and lies. Instead, this is a God who leads the people out of that kind of life and frees them for joyful obedience to God— the one who loves them.
It’s easy for us to look back on this event and think it was fairly simple for those Hebrew slaves to follow God out of Egypt. After all they had Moses and when Moses got tired, there was Aaron his trusty back up. There were plagues of all proportions to show God’s might, and when the time really came for them to leave, there was a pillar of fire to follow into the night so they always knew where to go. Except they didn’t. When we go back and read the full story we see all kinds of doubting and questioning happening. There were people who wanted to know what Moses’ ulterior motives were; there were people who thought it was much safer to stay in slavery because then at least they knew who their enemy was; there were others who were just as scared by the plagues as they were encouraged by them. The truth is, it’s always hard to leave Egypt. I remember hearing once that people will more often walk into a room and choose to sit by someone they don’t like rather than to sit by someone they don’t know. We like to know who the enemy is; we like to know what we can expect; and oftentimes, it is this desire of ours to be certain that keeps us enslaved.
Look at our Gospel this morning. Jesus has been doing miracles, he has been telling people about the Kingdom of God, he has been sharing what he knows of God’s love and grace and people all over the region are following him and listening to him. But when he goes to his own hometown, the people there turn to each other in surprise. Isn’t this just the carpenter, Mary’s son? Isn’t this just the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? Aren’t these women here his sisters? Where did he get this wisdom? And instead of listening, instead of having open hearts to what God could be doing in this son of Nazareth, the people are offended. And we are told that Jesus was amazed at their unbelief.
That word, “belief,” has come to mean something entirely different for us today than it did back then. In our post-enlightenment day, we understand beliefs to be about facts; about something you can prove or disprove; about doctrine. But that’s not the same thing as what Jesus says in this passage, and it’s not the same as what the Israelites expressed during their exodus. You see “faith” or “belief” in the Bible does not usually refer to a doctrine or a creed; rather, it refers to trust and loyalty that lead to commitment. (1) Jesus is expressing amazement that his own people— his own hometown— has so little trust that God could be doing something great in him. They see him and they think they know what he is capable of, and it is their certainty that Jesus is just a carpenter, is just Mary’s son, that actually limits what Jesus is able to do. Because the opposite of faith isn’t doubt— the opposite of faith is certainty; and the people are certain that Jesus is not who they’ve been waiting for.
Somehow the Hebrew people, even with all of their doubts about Moses, are willing to give up their certainty. Even though the people grumble; even though the people doubt; even though the people often tell Moses they wish they were back in Egypt; even though the people aren’t sure they want to give up this awful Pharaoh for a freedom they do not know, when the time comes they step out in trust— they step out in faith— not a blind, non-doubting faith, but a “Oh my God please let this be true” kind of faith.
I don’t know if you noticed, but when Moses gets to the Red Sea, when the people realize they are stuck between the Sea and Pharaoh’s army, the pillar of flame actually goes behind them. God’s Spirit stops leading them forward and steps between them and Pharaoh’s army instead. And then God tells Moses to stretch out his arm and to lead the people through the Red Sea. It is a moment of profound faith and doubt and trust all rolled into one and the people have to step through the Sea trusting that the God who is now behind them will still be with them on the other side.
There are times in our lives when we get to the edge of the sea, and we don’t see a way across, and then God provides a way— but it is up to us to cross it. And if we put our trust in God— not our ideas of God, or in our expectations of God, or in the fear we have of Pharaoh—if we put our trust in God, then amazing and life-giving things can happen. But if we wait until we are certain about what is over there, until we are certain about where this God will lead us— well then we may be left behind with Pharaoh and Pharaoh’s army. Because God often calls us to step out in faith— not to leave our doubts behind, but to leave our certainty behind; to trust that God will do a new thing even if we don’t know what it is yet.
And as we step out in faith, it is vitally important to keep trusting in God, even when we find our feet are back on dry land. So often we think the hardest part is crossing the sea, and we trust God in that part because we have to. But the trickiest part is trusting God even when we can start trusting in our own might and power again.
When we always put ourselves in the place of the heroes in the story, we often are blind to the way we can become the villains. Trusting in God means we have to be willing to recognize when we have turned away from God— and trust in God enough to change how we do things so that our hearts are not hardened against God’s Spirit.
Did you know that this is the same story that gave many of our European ancestors courage to leave their home countries and travel to this land— especially those who were being oppressed for their religious beliefs? It was this same story of the Hebrews following God to the Promised Land that gave our European ancestors the arrogance to claim this land as their promised land and to do whatever it took to stay here. Those early European settlers saw this as land that had been promised to them by God and they used that belief to justify the genocide of native peoples and the enslavement of African people.
Not too many years later, however, this is also the story that African American slaves discovered even though they were forbidden to read it, and by God’s unfathomable grace, adopted this story for themselves as they worked to escape from slavery. Many of the spirituals that were sung to pass messages along the Underground Railroad were built from this story including the one we sang this morning. And it is also a story that has given many oppressed peoples around the world courage that God is on the side of the oppressed and marginalized, that God hears the cries of God’s people and desires life instead of death and slavery.
Imagine the difference it would’ve made if those early European settlers, having come to this land escaping their own kinds of unjust treatment, had recognized that its tempting after you get through the Red Sea to become Pharaoh. We often become what we know— it’s why children who are abused sometimes turn into abusers; it’s why many nations that were colonized have a hard time becoming democracies. We often do what we know how to do. We often duplicate the systems we have grown up in. It’s why the Hebrews had to be reminded over and over and over again to welcome the stranger because they themselves had been strangers. It’s why Israeli theologians today are speaking out against the Israeli governments’ treatment of the Palestinians. They recognize what is happening from their own Scriptures. How different would this country be, if those who came before us were able to show up in what they considered the Promised Land, and say to themselves, we’ve seen this before; how can we do this differently? How can we keep ourselves from becoming Pharaoh? How can we live in peace with those who already live here? How can we recognize that slavery of any kind— even when we are not the slaves— is bad for everyone? How can we see that all people are children of God and not repeat what we have lived in Pharaoh’s land?
Gratefully, it’s never too late to turn to God and trust in God’s wisdom and hope and power above our own. It’s why we as a church thrive in the separation of church and state in our political system— because that distance from the state allows us to critique what is happening and to speak out when our laws and our systems are not in line with God’s law of loving our neighbors, of caring for children and widows, of welcoming the stranger.
It’s why we, as a church, reach out through GRIP/ISAIAH to listen to our neighbors and work to make housing affordable so families don’t have to worry about finding new places to live; of making transportation affordable and available so that people can get to work and to school; and to make sure good education is available to everyone so that this community is one where everyone can thrive.
It’s why we, as a church, are sending people to be trained in learning about Adverse Childhood Experiences so that we can more deeply understand one another and the community around us and create a community where all people can feel loved.
It goes back to Wesley’s general rules about doing no harm while we also seek to do good and to love our God. It’s not easy to trust in God enough not to be Pharaoh. It’s not easy to trust in God enough that we recognize God’s word and God’s love when it is right in front of us and looks differently than we ever expected. We will need to take risks of vulnerability to build relationships and we will often not be certain about where God is leading us. But God will be with us the entire way. God will be with us as we step out in faith and doubt, leading us into new life full of joy and laughter and love— into a new Promised Land where all are welcome, all are loved, and all of us see one another as our neighbor.
Sources Cited/Consulted: 1) JPS Torah Commentary, Exodus 2) “Let My Pharaoh Go!” By Nancy Hastings Sehested from sojo.net 3) “Exodus: Probing the Meaning of Liberation” by John Howard Yoder, The Post-American, September 1976