Entrapped or Freed?
A Meditation on
Rev. Cathy C. Hoop Grace Presbyterian Church September 17, 2017
Two stories of liberation: a people set free from enslavement, set free from the cruel power of Egypt’s pharaoh, and a man set free from a debt so enormous, that it would take several lifetimes to accrue it, much less repay it.
Two stories of people being handed hope, of having their burdens lifted. Two stories of new beginnings. We could go so far as to say “rebirth” or “resurrection.” Two miracle stories, although distinct in their heaviness. Neither of these miracle stories is simple, or easy on the stomach, from a digestion perspective. Both are offered to us with the complications and messiness of living out our faith in this world, and both stories ask us: what will you do with the grace which you have received… while others still wait?
Our Hebrew Bible reading is a defining moment for God’s community. Having survived the sufferings of slavery, having endured Pharaoh’s continual betrayals and broken promises, the people, guided by Moses, take their first tentative steps towards liberty. To hear this story with fresh ears and eyes – what a wonder this tale would be. We would gasp over each new plague, wondering if Pharaoh would ever agree to release the enslaved people. We would tremble as the first born of Egypt die, and we would weep at the thought of that first taste of freedom. Our tears would turn from joy to sadness as we witnessed those hopeful people trapped in a new way: Pharaoh’s army thundering towards them and the Sea of Reeds blocking their escape.
But God did not bring them this far to abandon them. Our God is a God of re-creation and rebirth. In Genesis 1, God separates the waters, coaxing the dry land to appear, making a space for vegetation and creatures great and small. God sees that all this is good, and God rejoices. Now God stands with the people, who look before them and see only their own mortality. Who look behind them and see the speed with which death races towards them. But where they see nothing but death, God sees an opportunity for re-creation.
God once more separates the waters. Listen to the words of verse 21: The Lord pushed the sea back by a strong east wind all night, turning the sea into dry land. The waters were split into two. God labors through the night to birth a new people! God takes a nighttime to do what God could have done in an instant. God chooses to labor through the night. Hold on to that truth when the waters seek to overwhelm you.
We know that the labor of childbirth is actually good for infants in numerous ways, respiratory benefits and increased blood flow. Though it may often take longer than a birthing woman may wish, we know that the process itself is a critical one. For whatever reason, God needed the people to wait at the water’s edge. To stand vigil while God did the holy laboring. To be witnesses to this re-creation.
A path of life emerges, and the people are reborn. Their resurrection takes place as they move through the mysterious watery valley, and climb out on the other side, a people unchained. Historians search for the place where all of this occurred, but they can’t find it. You can’t pinpoint holy moments on maps. Timelines, maybe, but not maps.
When God’s people look back, they see that death, in the form of Pharaoh’s army, has been destroyed, The Lord rescued Israel from the Egyptians that day. Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. 31 Israel saw the amazing power of the Lord against the Egyptians. The people were in awe of the Lord, and they believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses. (Ex. 14: 30 – 31)
It’s what we all want if we are truly honest. We want God to get rid of our enemies. Not so much on an individual level; but nations and armies and threats? Yes. We would not mind if God swallowed up our enemies in a sea of protection. Then we remember: Pharaoh’s hunger for power and control, his thirst for revenge; that was what killed his soldiers. Had he stayed true to his word to allow the Hebrew people to leave, none of this would have happened. The people would be free, and the soldiers would live to return to their families and friends. Is power worth that price?
As the Hebrew people danced and celebrated, as any of us would have done, did God celebrate? According to Jewish midrash, God reprimanded the angels for singing and dancing alongside the people, reminding them that some of God’s own children had been lost that day. The Jewish people, whose very ancestors had suffered under the inhumane practice of slavery, created a story to remind one another that God never takes delight in death, even the death of one’s enemies. Even the death of those participating in systems of oppression. The God who never gives up on anyone, did that God believe that Pharaoh’s hard heart could be softened? Maybe so. Maybe so.
That’s “70 x 7” forgiveness. That is a level of forgiveness that almost seems impossible to achieve; that is life changing forgiveness, if we allow it to soften our hard hearts. That is the forgiveness which God has poured out upon us through Jesus.
This story is a cautionary tale. How do we, when do we, like Pharaoh’s soldiers, find ourselves drowning in the pursuit of power and control? When do we find ourselves participating in systems that oppress? That path, this story reminds us, leads only to death, if not in body, then of the soul.
Theologian Anathea Portier-Young points out that in this Exodus passage, we encounter two words for “dry land.”
One is yabbashah. This word is most often used in descriptions of the miracle God performed at the Red Sea (6 out of 14 occurrences: Exodus 14:16.22.29, 15:19; Psalm 66:6; Nehemiah 9:11). It also describes God’s work in creation (Genesis 1:9-10, Jonah 1:9) and the people’s miraculous crossing of the Jordan River when they enter the land of promise (Joshus 4:22).
But another word for dry land also appears in the story of the Red Sea crossing (Exodus 14:21). That word, charabah, derives from a root ch–r-b, meaning to dry up or be in ruins. … Forms from this root frequently name the waste and desolation that follows upon warfare, judgment, and destruction.[i]
Warfare? Yes. Destruction? Yes. Even judgement. For we know that God promises to come to the aid of the suffering. God comes to set the captives free and to restore life. This dry land is a judgement against the systems that oppress, and Pharaoh’s chariots had no need to go there. They chose this path. With the rebirth of God’s people complete, the dry land turned back to mud, imprisoning the Egyptians and their chariots. Needless death instead of mercy.
The man in Jesus’ parable walked a merciless path as well. He chose to create a wasteland of scarcity when plenty had been offered up to him. We need to fully understand the exaggeration Jesus employs in this story. This man owes more money to the king “than was in circulation in Judea at that time!” (Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, vol. 2. P, 101) What a foolish king, to loan so much to someone who could never repay him. What a foolish King.
Forgiven of this exorbitant debt, the man does a very strange thing. Or we could say it is what he doesn’t do that is strange. He doesn’t go running through the streets to tell everyone what a wonderful king they have. He doesn’t run home to kiss his wife and weep with her over the mercy they have received. He doesn’t swing his children into the air and laugh with them, thankful that he will not be separated from them. He doesn’t stop to recognize the miracle. He has been given the rich soil of creation and new life and what does he do? In his haste to find the man who owes him a few coins, he tramples the miracle until there is nothing left of it but desolate, dry dirt.
And then we come to the very strange and frightening ending of this story. The forgiven man, caught up by his own desires for power and control, is thrown in prison to be tortured until he repays his debt, which he will never be able to do.
Jesus offers this tidy conclusion: “God will do this to you if you don’t forgive others!” Which doesn’t sound like Jesus…or God. I don’t believe God is in the torture business.
Theologian Scott Hozee writes, “ Someone once said that the scariest word in the entire New Testament is that tiny little word “as” in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” That vital connection between God’s abiding forgiveness of us and of our in turn forgiving others tells us that we must forgive. It’s the family style for the family of God and it starts with the Father and goes on down from there. This is not some weird demand on God’s part, however. This is not some hoop we must jump through to earn our salvation or to perform like some trained dog just because God enjoys watching us do tricks. No, the reason for the connection between God’s forgiving us and our forgiving others is because of the sheer power of God’s forgiveness. It is so great that it simply must and will change us.[ii]
Will you allow God’s forgiveness to change you? Will the ground beneath your feet be the soil of creation or the soil of destruction? Either way, it does not change God’s love for you, but it will change your experience of God.
Thanks be to God, who forgave us yesterday, who forgives us today, and who will forgive us for all the days to come. Amen.
[i] Portier-Young, Anathea, “Commentary on Exodus 16:2-15,” Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2179
[ii] Hoezee, Scott, “Sermon Starters,” Center for Excellence in Preaching, September 11, 2017, http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-19a/?term=Proper%2019A