This famous story of the Exodus is not only an exciting account of the Israelite’s march toward liberation, but it is also a gruesome story of judgment against an oppressor. Not only do we hear about the pillar of cloud and fire that guided the Israelites to freedom, we also hear how Yahweh confused the Egyptians and caused them to foolishly plunge into the sea. We see their panic as their chariots become stuck in the mire. We watch in horror as the waters collapse on the soldiers. We witness the Egyptian dead washing up on the seashore. Why so much gory detail in a story about the victory of God’s people? We could have gotten the point of liberation without so many horrible details. I had hard time reading it aloud.
But this story, as it stands, forces us to really pay attention to what happens to oppressors like the Pharaoh and his army—to ask questions, like, “Who really wins in an oppressive system or government, when one group dominates and rules another? Who really benefits when violence is the solution, making death inevitable?” The distance of centuries may make it easy to judge Pharaoh for being so hard-hearted, so violent, so malevolent toward a whole race of people.
With the distance of time and culture, we may conclude that this is what happens to oppressors when they oppose God’s will. And we would not be wrong about that. But we in the United States in this time, should not feel too satisfied with that conclusion, for this story serves as a cautionary tale for all nations who have amassed the kind of power that our country has.
While the US has championed freedom and liberation throughout its history, we also have a disturbing record of domination and even oppression.
While we would like to focus only on the positive parts of our nation’s story, we cannot close our eyes and plug our ears to the domination and violence of our story. After three decades of expansion, our detention system now captures and holds as many as 400,000 immigrants each year, even separating children from their parents and placing them in caged holding cells.
While our national creed promises “liberty and justice for all,” our nation continues to systematically oppress others – the poor, neighbors with black and brown skin. We have the highest incarceration rate in the world—37% greater than Cuba, 69% higher than Russia—and not because crime has increased. Crime has actually gone down since the 1990’s, but the arrest rate for non-violent drug crimes has gone up and the sentences have gotten longer, targeting those at the margins. Low-income and homeless people cannot pay bail. Black men have been arrested up to 270% more often than white men for marijuana possession and are twice as likely to get a longer sentence. Simply put, this is segregation by incarceration [See this article by the American Action Forum which calls itself "a center-right (italics mine) policy institutute providing actionable research and analysis to solve America's most pressing challenges"].
Our story today forces us to reckon with the bodies of the Egyptians dead on the shore, foiled by chariot wheels stuck in the mud, killed by the weight and burden of their superior military might, because we need to be reminded of the price of Pharaoh’s terror and oppression. Our story causes us to look at the casualties of our own nation’s power and policies – power and policies that target immigrants, the homeless, the poor, people of color, or the marginalized whose lives are not valued or on par with others.
If we do not hear in this story, God’s judgment on domination and oppression, then we are not dealing with the details of the story and thus, we are missing the point. Scripture tells us over and over what the Lord requires of us – that we “do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8). Throughout scripture, God has a special care and place for the poor, the oppressed, the foreigner, and the marginalized. While we can debate the best policies, or candidates, and ways to achieve equity and justice, we must act. In several weeks, we are all called to vote our conscience, guided by our God who wants peace and freedom, not only for our country, but for every nation, and for all people. Regardless of whom we elect, we will have the work of God’s justice to do.
While all oppression results in bloodshed and death, our story from Exodus is, in the end, a story about new life and liberation. God re-establishes order over chaos just as God did in the creation story from Genesis. In the beginning, the Spirit hovered over the deep, then moved as a mighty wind, separating the waters and creating dry land. In this Exodus, God ends the chaos of enslavement and empire with a new creation—so again, the Spirit blows the waters apart to reveal dry land and a safe passage for the Israelites into freedom and a new life.
Our calling as the church is to constantly choose this new life over death, freedom over slavery, liberation over oppression. For we serve a God of new life and liberation in Jesus Christ—whose Spirit blows over each of us anew in Baptism to claim us for freedom and for life. God calls us daily to leave systems of oppression and fear behind, and be made new to serve him with love and justice—
• we write letters to politicians who can make a difference in the lives of our marginalized citizens,
• we cook breakfast and feed our hungry neighbors,
• we listen to the experiences of immigrants who are seeking freedom and a better life and advocate for them with our votes, our voices, and our feet.
Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us that “the moral arch of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” We rejoice that on the journey of freedom and justice, our God of creation and liberation supplies our every need—God gives us water from a rock, manna from heaven, a cloud of witnesses to accompany us, and the body of and blood of Christ to nourish us, heart and soul. And God makes a way where there is no way – because God will not rest until we all arrive in the Promised Land as one people together.
• Where else do you see places of great injustice in our country today? Where do you see our country using its power for great good?
• Is it difficult to separate God’s desire for justice for all people of the earth, and our own national pride and self-interest? What do we do as Christians when these come into conflict?
• Have you ever connected the parting of the Red Sea with the creation story—as an act of re-creation of God’s people? Of establishing a new order in the face of the chaos of oppression? If God were to take such a dramatic action today, where would it be and what would it look like?
• What do you think are the most pressing needs in Richardson, northern Texas, and in the country that the church needs to be involved in and advocating for?
• What issues affect your neighborhood, those you love, or people you know?
• How has living in a global pandemic affected your experience and your perception of community needs, fairness, and how people exercise power (economic, governmental, social)?
• What is it you need from your church to be engaged more actively in community issues of justice, fairness, or community care?
Image: Art by Raanan, https://www.google.com/url?q=https://www.yoramraanan.com/new-laser-prints/crossing-the-red-sea&source=gmail&ust=1601572043056000&usg=AFQjCNEm4tQ4K5LO0haG4-K2dWXE5bZoZw">https://www.yoramraanan.com/