The following sermon was preached at saint benedict’s table on Sunday September 14, 2020.  The service was live-streamed from our empty church building because of COVID-19. You can read or listen to it here and you can also find it anywhere you listen to podcasts. During these unusual times, you can join us Monday-Friday for Evening Prayer at 5pm and at 7pm on Sundays for live-streamed liturgies on our church’s FB page.  The links to help you connect with me directly on social media can also be found on this website.


May the words of the mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Last week’s reading from Exodus ended with the celebration of the first Passover – if celebration is the right word for a night where the Israelites gathered in their homes and reminded each other of their shared history and God’s provision while all around them Egyptian households were discovering and then grieving dead children.  I imagine the Israelites were terrified the entire time and the wails of the Egyptians provided an eerie soundtrack that was impossible to block out.

And now the Egyptians want the Israelites to leave, to get out as quickly as possible.  They want them to leave so badly that they willingly give the Israelites everything they ask for – silver, gold, clothing. (12:35) In Everett Fox’s translation it says,  “So they did strip Egypt.”

Egypt is stripped of all its wealth, from their first born children, to their gold.  They are more than ready to get rid of the Israelites.

So the Israelites leave, and God is with them.  We’re told:

The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.  (13:21-22)

But then the Egyptians change their minds and they set out after the Israelites. The Egyptian army had horses and chariots and quickly caught up to the Israelites. (14:5-9)

And when the Israelites see Pharaoh and his army approaching, they think of all the miraculous things God has done and they are confident that God will continue to care for them.

No, of course that’s not what happens.  They get scared, they complain, and they look for someone to blame.  I’m guessing at least most of us can relate to that. And keep in mind, this isn’t an ordinary day, they have been travelling day and night since they left Egypt, and none of us are at our best when we’ve experienced trauma and are exhausted.

Moses bears the brunt of their complaining. They blame him, not God saying, “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.”

Moses, who was also exhausted and must have been hurt by this onslaught of criticism buries his hurt and sarcastic responses and instead replies, “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 have only to keep still.” (14: 10-14)

As the Egyptians approach, the pillar of cloud the Israelites have been following moves from in front of them to behind them so that it is between the Egyptians and the Israelites. (19-20)

So if the Israelites look one way, they can see the pillar of cloud and behind that, the Egyptian army, and if they look the other way, they see a large body of water.

In the translation we read tonight this body of water is just referred to as “the sea” and you may also have heard is called the Red Sea, but Everett Fox notes that scholars have also suggested it could be translated as “End Sea” or “The Sea at the End of the World.”  Which is lovely and evocative.

The Israelites are at the end of the world as they know it.  And then Moses “stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind at night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.” (21-23)

The sea splits in half exposing not just mud, but dry solid ground that they can walk on, and the Israelites cross the sea to the other side.

Seeing God’s power the Egyptians initially decide to retreat, but then they decide to also try to cross the sea and continue their pursuit but the waters close in around them and they all drown.

And then we read, “Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore.  Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.” (30-31)

The people saw what God had done, they believed in both God and God’s servant, Moses, and, they celebrated. They sang joyous songs of praise.

This story is troubling, and I can’t interpret my way out of the discomfort I feel about a story where God saves a bunch of people by killing another bunch of people. I have tried, but I can’t bend the text into a story that I’m more comfortable with. But there are a few things that at least help me engage with this story.

First, sometimes things are troubling. I don’t like it, but it’s true, and it’s healthy to acknowledge that.

Second, the stories we read in scripture were written for a purpose. Their purpose is not simply to chronicle facts as accurately as possible. Oftentimes they are more concerned with what is true, than with what is factual. In this case, a key purpose of this story is to remind the people of Israel who they are and who God is.  And God is the all-powerful, liberating God who can free enslaved people, spilt a sea in half, and vanquish anyone who seeks to do them harm.

And while I value human life, and think it is troubling whenever a human life is lost and even more troubling when people celebrate the loss of that life, I also know that as a privileged person, as a person from the dominant culture, I may want to identify with the Israelites, but in reality I’m a lot more like the Egyptians. And as such,  I need to be careful about my inclination to police the Israelites’ behaviour.  In fact, I want to carefully examine that inclination so that I can recognize and check it not just when I am interpreting a scripture passage, but also when I am interpreting the news or my neighbour’s behaviour.

This moment, this the Israelites have just been miraculously and dramatically saved from death moment. This moment of, the Israelites have been freed from centuries of oppression moment. This is not the moment for me to jump in and start telling the Israelites what to do or how to feel.

There are times to step back and be quiet, and this is one of them.

In the Talmud, one of the sacred texts of the Jewish tradition, there is a story that provides helpful commentary on these events.  The Egyptians have been drowned, the Israelites are singings celebratory songs, what is God up to?

We’re told that when the angels see the Egyptians are drowning they also begin to sing joyful songs, but God silences their songs with this rebuke, “How dare you sing for joy when My creatures are dying” (Talmud, Megillah 10b and Sanhedrin 39b).  God lets the Israelites sing and does not rebuke them, but God silences the angels. Maybe God understood that the Israelites needed “to give voice to the huge relief of finally being redeemed.”[1] But God does not celebrate, and God does not allow the angels to either.

Here’s another part of the story I want us to consider.  This story ends with the Israelites celebrating that they are no longer slaves and that the Egyptian army has been defeated.  They praise God and celebrate their newfound freedom.

However, it won’t be long before they once again begin to grumble and complain. It won’t be long before they will once again say that life was better in Egypt and they wish they could return.

I can only imagine how frustrating this was for Moses.  While it was God who freed the Israelites from slavery, Moses was a key part of that plan. Moses took risks, worked hard and sacrificed a lot in order to help his people.  He left his family and the life he had built in order to return to Egypt and do this work and now the people are complaining and blaming him.

And I imagine in his anger he might have thought, “Really? Really? You would prefer to return to Egypt and be enslaved. Well I’m sorry I left my family and the good life I had created for myself to help you. I’m so sorry that you’re no longer Pharaoh’s property that he can use and abuse however he likes.

And what do you mean, go back? There is no going back. The Egypt we left no longer exists, and in its place is an impoverished people, living through a collective trauma without a leader. The Egypt we remember no longer exists.”

And then possibly, after he’d cooled off a bit, had a nap, acknowledged the hurt those complaints had caused him he might have thought, “They can’t possibly want to return to Egypt. What is really going on here?”

I’m not sure what’s going on for the Israelites but change, especially abrupt change, is hard. Not knowing what is going to happen next is incredibly hard. It’s easy to look back and re-tell the story of your past when you feel like this; remembering only the good and forgetting all the bad.  It’s easy to feel nostalgic for that re-written version of your past and long to return to it.

The Israelites cried out to God when they were enslaved. They begged for freedom. They believed God’s promise that they would one day live in a land flowing with milk and honey.  They forgot to ask how long it would take to get there.  They forgot to think about what life would be like in the time after enslavement but before they reached their new home.

Today’s story shows us three phases in the Israelites’ journey.  Enslavement. The crossing of the sea. The celebration on the other side.

Knowing, as we do, that it won’t be long before those joyous songs will become a chorus of complaints, what can we learn from their experience in the hopes that we won’t repeat it in our own lives?

My hunch is that the question that will get each one of us to that answer is this, “What should the Israelites have left behind at the water’s edge?”  And by extension, what do we need to let go of?

This is not a one for one comparison, but I hope you’ll indulge me for a moment.

Enslavement. The crossing of the sea. The celebration on the other side. Disillusionment.

Our lives before March 2020.  Lockdown.  This wilderness wandering time as we wait for a vaccine.  The unknown future.

What do we need to let go of so that, when that time comes, we will be able to celebrate with everything we have without moving swiftly into disillusionment and complaint?

Because I do believe with all my heart that this situation -this pandemic -won’t last forever.  But I also believe, that there is no going back to the way things were.

I’m not certain what I need to leave by the water’s edge. I’m certain that for most of this pandemic I’ve been so busy focusing on trying to survive in the present moment that I haven’t taken the time to stop and reflect on that question. But I need to. I need to sit by the water’s edge and lament, and grieve, and lay some things down before I get back up and begin this next part of the journey.

Because there is no time machine that can take me back to February 2020 or hurtle me forward to a future where COVID doesn’t exist.   And I’m alive right now and I don’t want to miss the gifts that this incredibly hard wilderness time will also surely bring.

When God sends quail -and they will -I want to experience the joy of that unexpected gift. When God sends manna – and they will – I want to feast.

And when I finally arrive in that promised land, that land flowing with milk and honey, I want to know with every fiber of my being that there is absolutely no place I’d rather be.

And I want the same thing for each and every one of you.  So weep, lament, reflect, and leave whatever it is you need to leave at the water’s edge, and then let’s continue to journey forward in this wilderness time together trusting that God is and will be with us each step of the way.

In the strong name of our Triune God who creates, redeems, and sustains. Amen.


[1]    Thanks to the folks at Pulpit Fiction for bringing this to my attention.  And I looked a couple of times but couldn’t find an author to credit for this article.

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