Many of us are old enough to remember the radio newscaster Paul Harvey. He usually had some report that was punctuated with “and now the rest of the story…” He would tell of some twist that put the whole thing in a different light, sometimes humorous, some times touching.
Exodus 14 is a pivotal moment. The events ten years ago were pivotal. I want to think about them but then to think about the “rest of the story.”
After the last plague all Egypt was eager to see Israel gone. The trouble had struck homes. God had told the Hebrews to be packed and ready that last night, to eat standing up, because things would happen quickly, and when Egyptians told them to leave they wasted no time leaving.
In chapter 14 they have come to the Red Sea or the Reed Sea– a big water obstacle at the boundary to the desert and freedom, when someone looks back and sees an ominous plume of dust rising in the sky. Pharaoh has once again changed his mind and it would be death or slavery again if he caught up with them.
Panic ran through the crowd and not for the last time someone began to blame Moses for leading them into trouble.
God spoke to Moses. “Tell the people to be still and watch the salvation of the Lord.”
The staff rose and with it the wind began to blow till the waters were parted to reveal a path through the sea.
Is it any wonder this story has become an icon for God’s people? Baptism echoes that way opened by God to freedom through water. It will be repeated years later when another generation crosses the Jordan into Canaan. It foreshadows the victory of God in Christ’s resurrection. It becomes the symbol of the Christian crossing death into heaven.
And John looks down the years and sees it at the end of history:
“They have conquered the beast … [They] were singing the canticle of Moses, the servant of God” (Revelation 15,2.3).
And African American slaves heard it and dared to hope in a God who would free them.
God made a way where there was no way. And he does again and again.
The crowd dashed to the other side running across that ground that had become visible. And then pharaoh’s forces arrived with all their sophisticated chariots and battle tested military forces and they thought they would cross too.
God just let the wind die down and the waters that had gone the other way came flooding back, Chariots were bogged in mud, sinking in quicksand, and the army succumbed to a tsunami of destruction.
The stunned Israelites could scarcely take it in. There was crying and hugging and shouting. And then Moses’ sister got a tambourine kind of thing out and began a chant that spread till everybody was singing and dancing it. (Exodus 15:22:) Sing to the Lord, for very exalted is He; a horse and its rider He cast into the sea. Everybody joined in.
When they had run out of possibilities, God had stepped in and delivered them.
Some people have trouble believing such things ever happen. They say, “this is not in the Egyptian histories.” No, not very likely Egyptians would make a monument to failure, or write the history to immortalize a defeat. History for the Egyptians was propaganda for the empire.
Some say, “Well, it was the Reed Sea, not the Red Sea.” Conceded. The Okefenokee Swamp is not the Gulf of Mexico, but it would still be enough to keep you from going anywhere. Makes good sense that it was marshy swampy ground that gooped up the general’s chariots.
Some say it was a natural event that parted the waters. A clever geologist published a book a few years back that suggested an eruption in the Aegean, of the island of Yali, some 3600 years ago caused a series of tsunamis that parted the sea and drowned the pursuing Egyptian army.
But mechanical and natural explanations miss the point. It isn’t as if God doesn’t use natural means to act. God uses Moses. God could use earthquakes. The blending together in an amazingly timely way of events can still be a miracle. As William Temple said, When I pray, coincidences happen, and when I don’t, they don’t.
Some of us can testify to that in recent experience.
Not every problem needs Divine intervention. sometimes it is enough to have a boat and go to paddling. I will not doubt there is a God, if God leaves some things up to me or if I do not yet see God acting.
Well back to the party.
Miriam dancing, everybody singing. Those mean ole Egyptians all dead.
And now for the rest of the story.
Long after the sea was crossed and the singing died out, the rabbis struggled with this story. Did the people walk into the sea or wait until the sea retreated? Did God part the sea only after the people showed their faithfulness by stepping into the water? To answer such questions the sages developed the art of midrash– stories to fill in the gaps, to deal with contradictions and confusion. In one story from the Babylonian Talmud angels were watching as the sea covered the Egyptians: “In that instant the ministering angels wished to utter song before the Holy One, but He rebuked them, saying, ‘The works of My hands are drowning in the sea, and you would utter song in My presence.!'” [Cited in The Book of Legends: Sefer Ha-Aggadah, Legends from the Talmud and Midrash edited by Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky, translated by William G. Braude (New York: Schocken Books, 1992) 73. Footnote #11 gives the source as B. Sanhedrin 39b] A rabbi friend told me that over the years this midrash has been retold with God rebuking not only the angels, but the Israelites themselves.1
In Passover observances There are 4 glasses of wine for each person poured during the meal. They symbolize the four distinct redemptions promised by G-d to the Hebrews as told in Exodus 6:6-7.
“I will take you out of Egypt”,
“I will deliver you from Egyptian slavery”,
“I will redeem you with a demonstration of my power”, and
“I will acquire you as a nation”.
It is a meal of celebration. But before drinking the wine a few drops are taken from the glass and let fall. Blood red drops of wine, to remember the suffering of the Egyptians, mourning the death of the Egyptian first-borns and the drowning of the whole Egyptian army in the sea. A few drops of wine help to remember that the joy is not total because of the suffering of their oppressors.
The rabbis began to see that there was more to God than just Israel. God has a bigger heart than we sometimes imagine.
Some prophet wrote a “once upon a time” story to make the same point. In it a prophet named Jonah is told to go preach to Israel’s worst enemy. Assyria was legendary in its terror tactics: torture, killing young and old, demolishing towns, wiping out agriculture. Ten tribes of Israel went missing forever as a result of their total war.
God tells Jonah to go hold a revival in their capital Nineveh and warn them about Judgment Day.
Jonah doesn’t want to do that. Why, they might get religion and Jonah knew enough about God to think that God might forgive even Nineveh. And Jonah wanted nothing more than to see them all burn in hell for what they had done to his fellow Jews.
You know how he runs away in the opposite direction, which means he has to go by boat. And there is a terrible storm that make the sailors suspect supernatural attack. Had someone on board offended the gods? Jonah who had been hiding in the belly of the boat admits he may be the object of Divine fury and suggests they throw him overboard to get the storm to quit. Jonah in other words would rather die than obey God’s command.
But God plays a trick on this would be suicide by sending a fish to swallow him. And there in the belly of the fish Jonah finally talks to God for the first time in the story. He finally says yes, at which the fish vomits him on shore.
He is not a happy preacher as he comes into Nineveh, a speck of humanity in a sprawling sea of urban development. His obligatory sermons are short and full of hell fire. But God uses him even so and people get converted.
That would have been a good place for the story to end but the writer has yet to make his point. Jonah is pouting and depressed that God is going to forgive Nineveh instead of destroying it. Finally he breaks down and cries but it is because the vine he was sitting under for shade has died.
God gently asks him. “You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work, and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. 11 And should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?”
Even the animals.
In the gospel lesson Peter asks if there is not some limit to forgiving. When can just stop and wish somebody could go to hell?
Jesus said if you have been forgiven, would you want there to have been a limit?
No, as a matter of fact, not to be forgiving says that you believe in a system of people being on the hook indefinitely for their mistakes. It is to say that once you have messed up, things can never be right again. Do you really want that to be the way the world works? Do you really want that to be the way God is?
When 9-11 happened there was grief. There had to be sorrow for all those 3,000 lives lost in NYC, DC and the fields of PA. Then the stories of some of the lives, the dreams, the hopes, the bravery of so many who went to their death that day.
There was fear because we suddenly all knew that being in America could not protect us from terrorists.
And that fear often erupted into anger and suspicion which fueled a war and ignited intense prejudice against Muslims and Middle Easterners generally.
We should mourn. And it is right for us to be wary and take appropriate precautions. But the anger and suspicion so easily misguide us.
Jesus taught us that God not only cares about justice and judgment. God cares even more that bitter stories have a better ending. That sinners see the error of their ways and turn back to righteous ways. That the lion and lamb lie down together, and there is peace not killing. That the future can be anticipated with hope and not fear. God wants to reconcile the world to God. And the only path to that other ending is by forgiveness.
When we return vengeance for vengeance, the terrorists have succeeded in making us one of them.
So what I want to hear again about 9/11 is how some risked their life to save others. How survivors and the loved ones of the victims have made of the horror a new start with deeper concern to make the most of life, to work harder for peace, to do something to make the world a different kind of place. How they maybe work a little less hard so they can pay attention to the people in their lives.
I don’t want to celebrate how many bombs we dropped, but how many schools we built. I don’t want to focus on how many suspects we have eliminated but how ——
God is always at work with those who are willing to bring good out of even the most terrible experiences. (Roman 8:28)
Bin Laden is dead. That alone does not mean the end of Al Qaeda or final victory over the sources of these who hate and destroy.
Anne Frank, the young girl who died during the Holocaust, wrote these words in her diary, and they seem as appropriate today as they were then: “I don’t believe that the big men, the politicians and the capitalists alone are guilty of the war. Oh, no, the little man is just as keen; otherwise the people of the world would have risen in revolt long ago! There is an urge and rage in people to destroy, to kill, to murder, and until ALL mankind, without exception, undergoes a great change, wars will be waged, everything that has been built up, cultivated and grown, will be destroyed and disfigured, after which mankind will have to begin all over again.”
Not till hearts have been changed.
The rest of the story is God’s love for the fallen as well as the rescued. His continuing love that leaves the possibility for a different ending.
We are called to follow such a lord and to live by peace, hospitality, forgiveness.
Receive each other– not to judge but to encourage in some way.
As far as it depends on you live at peace with all (Romans 12).
Richard Rohr writes, From the perspective of eternity, we are all caught up in the web of good and evil, we are all complicit in evil and we are all capable of good, and it is inside of that web that God liberates us for love and for life.
On 9/11 when the towers were falling in New York City, an Islamic Arab from Palestine was running for his life in the surging crowd when he stumbled and fell. Paralyzed with fear and unable to get up, he was trampled within seconds by hundreds of feet rushing past him. Then the man felt an arm on his shoulder and a voice speaking to him. “Get up, brother! We have to get out of here.” Unable to stand because of his injuries, he felt himself being picked up. Again he heard the voice: “Brother, we have to get out of here.” Half dragged, half carried down many stories, the man finally emerged from the building leaning heavily on his rescuer. As the injured Palestinian turned to thank the person who had carried him to safety, his eyes widened, for the person who had called him “brother,” the man who had saved his life, was a Hasidic Jew. He had risked his life for an enemy. Who would do such a foolish thing? (TILDA NORBERG, Ashes Transformed: Healing from Trauma, Upper Room Books, 2002, pp. 54-55)
There was a bus sitting at a bus stop one evening. Passengers were getting
on the bus. An old man stepped on the bus. His clothes were disheveled,
and he smelled of alcohol. He staggered down the aisle and dropped into a
seat. A young man was sitting opposite to him, returning home from church.
He wore a nice suit, and he clutched a black leather Bible in his left
hand. The young man turned to the old man and said, “Mister, you are going
to hell.” The old man jumped up, and his eyes grew wide. He said, “I knew
I got on the wrong bus!”
Paul wants us not to be like that young man, clutching our opinions, passing
judgment on the person next to us who is different. Paul here is in keeping
with the teachings of Jesus, who said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not
judge, or you too will be judged.” The flipside of a nonjudging life is a
merciful life. So also Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will