We cross borders all the time. Crossing the border into Canada is relatively easy, as long as we have the proper identification. If you’re trying to cross from Mexico into the United States without documentation, it can be incredibly difficult and dangerous. The plight of the children fleeing the violence of Central America and the status of young adults who came here with their parents as small children and who have known no other world but America has raised important questions about the nation’s immigration laws. Many are asking whether they are fair and just and appropriate.
Then there’s the border dividing Detroit from its suburbs. While no one has to present their papers to cross the divide that 8 Mile Road symbolizes, in the minds of many Detroit and the Suburbs are two different worlds. In fact, crossing the border can be frightening for many – on both sides of the divide.
We cross borders every day of our lives as we navigate the ever-changing landscape of our world. The borders can be economic, cultural, religious, generational, ethnic, gender-related, or related to one’s sexual orientation. Reaching across these borders can be difficult.
I remember a presentation a fellow student made in my American Protestant Theology class at Fuller. The student was African American and his topic was Black Theology. He told us that unless you’re black, you really can’t understand what it means to be black in America, and therefore we couldn’t truly understand Black Theology. Being young and naive, I found this difficult to accept. Why couldn’t I understand? After all, isn’t there just one kind of theology? Yes, I was naive, and I’ve come to learn that there are some things in life that I will never experience, and therefore never completely understand. When we encounter these kinds of borders, we can only cross them as invited guests who are ready to humbly listen. That’s not easy – especially if you like to talk!!
In our story from Exodus 14, Israel is facing a border crossing crisis. They’ve headed out into the desert excited about the future. They are free from Pharaoh’s control and the Promised Land awaits them. There’s only problem, they are standing at the edge of the Sea, while Pharaoh’s army is camped out at their rear. You see, when Pharaoh changed his mind about letting the people go, he sent the army out to bring them back – dead or alive. So, here they are – standing between the proverbial “rock and a hard place.” They’re trapped, and so they cry out to Moses – “was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” Yes, it would have been better to serve the Egyptians as slaves than die in the desert (Exodus 14:11-12).
In our reading for today, the Angel of the Lord, who had been leading the people toward the Promised Land in the form of a cloud pillar, moves to the rear and separates them from the Egyptian army. In doing this, God provides cover for the people of Israel to take the next move, if they’re willing to take a step of faith. Remember there’s that body of water that sits between them and the safety of the Sinai.
After providing cover, God next moves to make a pathway through the Sea. God directs Moses to stretch out his hand over the Sea, after which an east wind comes up driving the waters back. It takes all night, but in the morning there’s dry land lying ahead of them. Freedom awaits, but fear can paralyze us. We can start asking lots of questions that keep us from moving forward. After all, the winds might stop blowing and the Sea might fall back on them before they get across.
As I try to envision what’s happening here, it’s difficult to break free of the way the event gets portrayed in The Ten Commandments movie. In the movie, the waters, which I’ve crossed through on the Universal Studio’s tour, divide quite nicely. But was it really that easy? After all, they were going to cross the sea bed, and in the ancient world the Sea was a rather fear-inducing entity. It was a realm of darkness and danger.
But faced with either death or enslavement if they stay put, they break free of their fears, and begin the journey through the Sea. Then, when the Angel of the Lord removes the cover separating Pharaoh’s arm from Israel, allowing them to pursue Israel, Moses once again stretches out his hand and the sea returns to its normal depth, scattering the army. Pharaoh wanted to control things, but Pharaoh couldn’t control the sea. And his forces pay dearly for their lust for power.
When Israel found itself camped out between the Sea and the Army, the nation became frightened. Fear took hold. But, now, having crossed through the Sea, the “people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.” As I read this story, I see a movement from fear of the world to the fear of God. The words are the same, but the meaning is very different.
I’m quite mindful that we live in a culture of fear. The fear of terrorism drives the security apparatus at the airport. The fear of the other keeps people from driving to Detroit or the suburbs – depending on who you are and where you live. Our schools have moved from being a relatively open space where people come and go to locked-down facilities. Unfortunately, because of events like the shooting at Sandy Hook, this has proven necessary. And some here might remember back in the days when school children practiced ducking and covering in case of a nuclear attack by the Soviets. I think by the time I started school, the authorities had realized that hiding under a desk wasn’t going to protect us against a nuclear attack.
So, what changed for Israel? Well, they were frightened by Pharaoh’s army, but having crossed the Sea and watched as God destroyed that army, they realized that something or someone bigger than Pharaoh was on their side. The kind of fear that they expressed toward God, was different from that induced by Pharaoh. The kind of fear that God induced was one of awe, which led them to worship God as their liberator.
In the 15th chapter of Exodus we find two songs. There is the song of Moses and then the song of Miriam, the sister of Moses. The song of Moses is longer, but the song of Miriam might be older.
When the people arrive on the other side of the Sea, having seen God defeat their enemies, they hold a celebration. This celebration was very different from Passover. Passover was about preparing to leave. This celebration was about victory. So Moses and Miriam and the people of God all sing:
“I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.
The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation;
this is my God, and I will praise him,
My father’s God, and I will exalt him.
The Lord is a warrior, the Lord is his name.” (Exodus 15:1-3).
The song continues on, narrating God’s victory in this cosmic battle with Pharaoh. Then later in the song, we hear them sing:
In your steadfast love you led the people whom you redeemed;
you guided them by your strength to your holy abode.” (Exodus 15:13)
While we might find the warrior imagery here disconcerting – and we should – the point here is that the people danced and sang and partied, because God brought victory over their enemy. Yes, Pharaoh may have wanted to control everything, but ultimately God is in charge. Pharaoh might enslave, but God liberates.
So what should we take from this story? What does it say to us about moving beyond our fears to experience the fullness of God’s grace and love? Perhaps the key is found in the Songs of Moses and Miriam – it is this steadfast love of God, which redeems us and lifts us beyond our fears, so we can cross the borders in our lives and enjoy the fruit of God’s presence. Yes, there is freedom from fear so we might be used by God to expand the reach of God’s realm in this world.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
September 14, 2014