The Israelites have lived in Egypt for four hundred and thirty years. It has been a life of oppression, a life of barely hanging on, a life of working day after day under the hand of brutal taskmasters – taskmasters who were instructed by Pharaoh to withhold the very raw ingredients the Israelites needed to make bricks, a life of being treated as machines, a life of being valued only for what they could produce. As their leader, Moses has spent his life crying out to Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” The time has finally come. The plagues of water turned to blood, frogs, gnats, flies, diseased livestock, boils, thunder and hail, locusts, and darkness did not change Pharaoh’s evil ways. But after the tenth plague, the death of the first-born sons in Egypt, Pharaoh finally let God’s people go. The Israelites left, taking their ancestor Joseph’s bones with them, and the Lord led them in the wilderness with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Pharaoh and his officials began to wonder, “What have we done, letting Israel leave our service?” Pharaoh’s heart hardened again. It’s hard for captors to change their ways. So Pharaoh sent the Egyptian army to pursue the Israelites and overtake them. As the Egyptians begin to overtake them, the Israelites cry out to the Lord, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” Memory is a funny thing, isn’t it? It’s almost as if the Israelites have quickly forgotten the life-sucking days of slavery under Pharaoh’s hand. It’s almost as if the Israelites have forgotten that it is the Lord that they serve. Moses says to the Israelites, “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you only have to keep still.” The time has finally come.
This angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moves and goes behind them. The pillar of cloud too moves behind them, between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. It puts darkness between them, and also lights up the night. The armies do not come near one another all night. Then Moses stretches his hand out over the sea, and the Lord drives the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turns the sea into dry land, dividing the waters, pushing the waters back like that very first moment of creation, forming a wall on the right and the left. The Israelites pass through the sea on dry ground, and the death-hungry Egyptian army pursued them. They cannot let these people go. When the morning comes, the gaze of the Lord through the pillar of fire and cloud is piercing enough to make the Egyptians decide to flee, to recognize that the Lord is on Israel’s side. Moses again stretches out his hand and the sea returns to its normal depth. The Lord tosses the Egyptians into the sea. The waters cover all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. Not one of them remained. Not one of them remained. Evil did not remain. The captor did not remain. Injustice did not remain. Egypt’s power and arrogance did not remain. Egypt drowned in a chaos of their own making. The Israelites walked on dry ground. Evil was dead upon the seashore. The time had finally come.
God delivered the Israelites from the Egyptians, and the people of Israel sang and cried out to the Lord the words in our call to worship from this morning: “Sing to the Lord, for God has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider God has thrown into the sea.” As poet Debbie Friedman says, “And the women dancing with their timbrels; Followed Miriam as she sang her song; Sing a song to the One whom we've exalted. Miriam and the women danced and danced the whole night long.”[i] What a beautiful story of the Israelites fleeing the captor! And yet, this story is a hard story to hear and a hard story to preach because God takes sides, because one group of people is thrown into the sea, because one group of people is dead upon the seashore. One of my all-time most memorable moments in youth ministry here at Greenwood Forest was the night I was teaching on this story. Our beloved Jason Brooks, after hearing this story looked up at me with puzzled and angry eyes, and starting yelling, “I mean…seriously? What about the Egyptians in this story? They don’t fare so well. This isn’t good news for them! What kind of God is this?”
It’s true. It’s not good news for the Egyptians. We cannot celebrate the loss of human life, but yet the Egyptians were on the wrong side of evil, on the wrong side of injustice. The triumph is not over human life but over evil. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said in his sermon on this text, “This story symbolizes something basic about the universe. It symbolizes something much deeper than the drowning of a few men, for no one can rejoice at the death or the defeat of a human person. This story, at bottom, symbolizes the death of evil. It was the death of inhuman oppression and ungodly exploitation. The death of the Egyptians on the seashore is a glaring symbol of the ultimate doom of evil in its struggle with good.”[ii] In this story, the Egyptians represent evil and the Israelites represent good, and God takes sides with the Israelites, with the ones being oppressed, with the ones in captivity. And ultimately, God stands against evil. Ultimately, in God’s world, evil will be doomed.
It all sounds foreign to us because in our world we are reluctant to name something as evil. We are all for taking sides, but we don’t want to judge sides, to call people out, or to be bold enough to name evil. And we certainly don’t want God taking sides. We value tolerance. In our culture, it is our ultimate ethical standard. We go to great lengths in order to avoid conflict in the name of tolerance. In their book Organizing Church, Tim Conder and Dan Rhoades argue that churches, in trying to avoid or eradicate conflict, also keep their congregations from becoming active and vibrant. They say that one of our strategies in order to avoid conflict is to promote tolerance. Conder and Rhoades say, “The strategy usually acknowledges the existence of difference or division, but politely (and “respectfully”) steers clear of confrontation and the messiness of contestation and its accompanying pain or angst. Privileging decorum or proper etiquette to the disturbance of conflict, many congregations make it a practice simply not to talk about controversial issues or places of significant agreement. We live most prominently by our larger culture’s eleventh commandment: ‘Thou shalt not judge’.”[iii] Sometimes, at Greenwood Forest, we get confused about our tagline and think that being an “inclusive community of faith” simply means being tolerant of all people, no matter their belief or practice or acts, no matter whether they’ve found themselves on the wrong side of evil. Sometimes we think that being inclusive somehow means that we can avoid taking stands against injustice, all under the banner of being tolerant.
And yet, Conder and Rhoades claim, that this mode of tolerance in our society and in our churches is not an adequate way to deal with the problems we face. “It’s hard to imagine the practice of tolerance could resolve issues of urban poverty, institutional racism, sexism, budget crises, abuse or social isolation, let alone foster active dedication needed for strong and healthy communities.”[iv] All tolerance does is demobilize us. If we want to make the world look like the kingdom of God, we must be willing to confront the “powers the benefit from injustice and want to maintain the status quo.”[v] We must be willing to engage in friction. We must be willing to name what is evil and who is on the side of evil. We cannot tolerate evil or those who participate in injustice. To tolerate evil means we position ourselves against the work of God and the work of the kingdom. We must care about more than the absence of tension or conflict. We must work for justice. We must work for and call upon God to help the marginalized and the oppressed flee the captor, and in order to do this work of God’s kingdom, we must take sides.
Theologian Walter Brueggemann says that the church must dare to reenact the story of the Red Sea by doing four things: sounding the cry, contesting for the alternative, acting out the alternative, and dancing out beyond slavery.[vi] Martin Luther King, Jr., in his sermon that I mentioned earlier, gives an example of how the story of the Red Sea was reenacted in the American Civil Rights Movement. His sermon was preached at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in an ecumenical program commemorating the second anniversary of the Supreme Court’s school desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education. King said, “Many years ago the Negro was thrown into the Egypt of segregation. The closed Red Sea always stood before him with discouraging dimensions. There were always those Pharaohs with hardened hearts, who, despite the cries of many a Moses, refused to let these people go. But one day, through a world shaking decree by the nine justices of the Supreme Court of American and an awakened moral conscience of many White persons of good will, backed up by the Providence of God, the Red Sea was opened, and the forces of justice marched through to the other side. As we look back we see segregation caught up in the rushing waters of historical necessity. Evil in the form of injustice and exploitation cannot survive. There is a Red Sea in history that ultimately comes to carry the forces of goodness to victory, and that same Red Sea closes in to bring doom and destruction to the forces of evil.”[vii] King very clearly named evil and who was on the side of it and was willing to engage in friction and to take sides in order to work for justice and to help the ones who were oppressed flee the captor.
If we are going to sound the cry, contest for the alternative, act out the alternative, and dance out beyond slavery, we must ask specific questions and be willing to give specific answers. Who plays the Pharaoh in our world? Who acts in exploitative ways and organizes political and economic systems around greed? Who are the exhausted laborers who are crying out? Where is the power of God at work subverting the status quo? Who are the people who are enacting holy alternatives, alternatives that embody God’s liberation?[viii] As we seek to answer these questions together and work for justice, we would do well to heed King’s words: “Let us remember that as we struggle against Egypt, we must have love, compassion, and understanding goodwill for those against whom we struggle, helping them to realize that as we seek to defeat the evils of Egypt we are not seeking to defeat them but to help them, as well as ourselves.” In the event of the Red Sea, even the Egyptians came to know that the God of the Israelites was the Lord. Even captors need to be freed from slavery. We call out those on the wrong side of evil hoping that they too can be liberated. May God give us courage through Jesus Christ our Lord, the one who ultimately liberates us all, so that we can work to help the oppressed flee the captor, so that one day all evil may be dead upon the seashore.
[ii] Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Death of Evil upon the Seashore.” Sermon Delivered at the Service of Prayer and Thanksgiving, Cathedral of St. John the Divine on May 17, 1956.
[iii] Tim Conder and Dan Rhoades, Organizing Church: Grassroots Practices for Embodying Change in Your Congregation, Your Community, and Our World, 81.
[v] Ibid, 82.
[vi] Walter Brueggemann in Truth Speaks to Power: The Countercultural Nature of Scripture, 38.
[vii] Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Death of Evil upon the Seashore.” Sermon Delivered at the Service of Prayer and Thanksgiving, Cathedral of St. John the Divine on May 17, 1956.
[viii] Based off questions asked by Walter Brueggemann in Truth Speaks to Power: The Countercultural Nature of Scripture, 37.