We are moving through the Book of Exodus this month as God breaks cycles of poverty, oppression, slavery. For Jews this story is the central claim of their faith. Out of hopeless slavery & death appears life and a future with Yahweh, their God. In these chapters we witness how God liberates an oppressed people, delivers them, and provides sustenance in the desert wilderness.
The prologue to God liberating the Israelites includes intense negotiations between Pharaoh & Moses for the lives of the Hebrew people. They have been enslaved for 400 years with no hope of liberation. God finally hears their cry and sends them Moses, along with his brother Aaron. They deliver God’s message to Pharaoh. “Let my people go!” Pharaoh relents, the next day his heart is hardened and he refuses. Moses, God and Pharaoh get into a cycle of escalation of plagues and stubborn refusal. Moses demands, “Let my people go!” Pharaoh’s heart hardens followed by refusal. Another plague. On and on. It’s relentless. 10x this happens. Many of us memorized the 10 commandments, but how many of you memorized the 10 pesky plagues? Water turning to blood, frogs, lice & flies, wild & sick animals, boils, thunderstorms of fire & hail, locusts, darkness for 3 days, and death of firstborn children. If you were Pharaoh and saw how your stubborn decisions led to such destruction and death to your people, you might rethink your stance. But so often people do inflict their destructive, harmful decisions on others without remorse. The cost to empire becomes more important than pesky plagues, especially if it has an economic impact on the bottom line, even if harmful to oneself or one’s integrity/character.
There are so many memes about the year 2020 – almost like we are in re-living the plagues listed in Ex 7-11. We have a literal plague in the coronavirus pandemic. It is devastating that we are closing in on 200,000 deaths from the virus in the US alone, many that could have been averted. What else feels like a plague to you this year? List any plagues in the chat – I may be able to call a few of them out. Many are calling racial injustice a pandemic – one that has plagued POC for over 400 years.
Climate change might be another plague that humans have contributed to since the industrial age – This is one of the worst fire seasons on record with the west coast recording the worst air quality in the world – it feels like a plague when one of the only safe places to go was outside, and now that, too, is off-limits. Fossil fuels, hurricanes, rising temperatures, rising sea levels, derechos, earthquakes; The rise of fascism and undermining robust journalism by calling it “fake news”; Diminishing the role of Science and truth by obfuscating or undermining of facts. The plague of uncertainty – economic uncertainty, the uncertainty of school, church, football.
The last few days, the sky has turned dark and the sun turned red, because of over 100 fires burning through the west coast. There are parallels in the Exodus passage and the passage from Joel 2:
I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below – blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s glorious day.’ It sounds and feels apocalyptic.
Krista Tippet, broadcaster for the podcast “On Being” says:
The Greek word “apocalypse,” means an uncovering — the lifting of a veil. The Covid-19 virus has uncovered all of the reckonings we must walk towards if we are to become wise and whole as individuals, communities, institutions. The question of “who we will be to each other” has been surfacing more insistently, and its implications have now been laid bare in our economies, our politics, our cultures. Perhaps it’s time for an uncovering, the lifting of the veil as this apocalypse descends.
One of my clergy colleagues Heather Riggs:
“This year has revealed the holes in our social safety net. The injustices of our economic system. What if this isn’t just a revealing moment? What if this is an Exodus moment where the earth cries out for justice and release? While God didn’t cause all of this, and isn’t punishing anybody, God can speak to the hard hearted about the importance of mercy.”
Did Pharaoh ever learn mercy? After that terrible night of death, he may have told Moses: “Go! Leave me in peace!” But he never just ”let them go.” After the final deadly plague, his heart is hardened once again. He chases after them with all his military might, using his own “Law & order” – words people in power employ to maintain control over those it seeks to oppress for its own gain. Liberation from oppression will always come at a cost to the empire, where compassion and mercy are in short supply.
After years of bondage to Egyptian masters, meaningless drudgery, freedom was within their grasp. At the end of Chapter 13,
“When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer; for God thought, “They may change their minds and return to Egypt.” So God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea. God went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night.
Exodus 14 -And the people complained. “It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” Moses: “Do not be afraid, stand firm. The Lord will fight for you, you have only to keep still.”
And then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. God parts the waters to provide a way forward for the Israelites and then causes the waters to return, killing the Egyptian pursuers. Is this divine partisanship? Does God support some people and destroy others without regret? While we might desire vindication and vengeance, it is difficult to reconcile a God who would continue the cycle of violence that Pharaoh began. That would be morally and theologically problematic.
Dr. Derek Weber, Director of Discipleship Ministries for UMC,
“What if a literal reading of this text isn’t the best way to read it? What if what needs to die are the closely held beliefs in supremacy, racial superiority, and religious bigotry? What if what needs to die is a worldview that wants to cling to their racism as if it were their firstborn child, one that oppresses and dehumanizes?
When they reached the other side, Moses was so moved by what had happened he burst into song. And then Miriam takes the tambourine and ALL the women followed her with tambourines and with dancing. Miriam sang: “Sing to the Lord, for God has triumphed gloriously; the horse & rider thrown into the sea.” Where does God need to triumph today? What plagues need to be thrown into the sea?
And how do we turn cycles of violence and retribution to healing act of forgiveness. Restorative justice
Way back in February, some of us attended the Interfaith Advocacy Day with Faith Action Network in Olympia, the state capitol, way back before our lives were impacted by the pandemic. Rabbi Seth Goldstein talked about this story of crossing the Red Sea – that like the Israelites, we get so caught up in slogging through the mud working for justice, that we aren’t aware of miracles taking place around us ALL the time.
The Israelites complained: “In Egypt we had mud, in the sea we have mud.” We can’t be concerned with the mud on our feet. I need to be mindful of miracles. Look for the path ahead, not the mud below. Keep your eyes & hearts open. When I see all of you gathered here together to do this work, I am buoyed by this work of educating ourselves about important issues. This work of connecting with neighbors to share strategy and inspiration. This work of telling our elected leaders that the world as it is is not the world as it could be. It is a bit of a slog. But that doesn’t make our arrival on the other side any less of a miracle. That is the miracle—that we can create the world God intends through hard work and persistence. That we have the power to build relationships and change minds. That we can advocate for solutions that bring about a more just world. That we can say, we must care for Creation, using the best science. That we can say no to private prisons, the death penalty and discrimination. That we can say welcome to those who come to this country seeking refuge and opportunity. That we can say we need a more equitable economic foundation with a fair distribution of resources, so that everyone has what they need – food, health care, a home. We can say this because we are a people rooted in our values & faith. Let’s march through the mud to get to Promised Land.
God is working within us to turn us toward the healing of the planet, a concept in Judaism called tikkun olam, literally the. ‘repair of the world’, to act constructively. The victory of God at the ancient Sea of Reeds is a foretaste of that victory where God’s desire is to make creation whole again in the face of our human proclivity to fragment it.