By Pastor John J. Pawloski - September 17th, 2023
Exodus: 14:19-31 (NRSVue)
The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.
Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all 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. The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh's horses, chariots, and chariot drivers.
At the morning watch the LORD in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, "Let us flee from the Israelites, for the LORD is fighting for them against Egypt."
Then the LORD said to Moses, "Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers." So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the LORD tossed the Egyptians into the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.
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.
I write this sermon on the 22nd anniversary of the terrorist attack on 9/11. As we remember those who died needlessly on that day, we consider the barbarism and savagery of the terrorists who took the lives of innocent people to make a political point. We also remember the news clips showing groups around the world who actually cheered as they learned that the twin towers had fallen. And we thought who could possibly cheer this act of cruelty? But as information came to light as to who was behind this terrorist act, a counter-narrative to the American perspective quickly emerged. People from far off lands sought to justify the 9/11 attack as payback for the countless times America had turned a blind eye to dictators who professed loyalty to the United States while maintaining power with ruthless disregard for human rights. The fallacy of this argument is quickly rejoined by what every kindergarten child knows: two wrongs do not make a right.
We all remember President Bush at the rubble site of the fallen towers climbing upon a mound of cement and rebar, taking a bullhorn, and announcing to the world that the people who attacked us on 9/11 would soon feel the wrath of U.S. military power. What we sometimes forget is that Osama Bin Laden was found in Pakistan, not Afghanistan or Iraq, and countless women, children, and innocent people were killed by drone strikes and carpet bombing. The attackers were from Saudi Arabia, our supposed ally. We avenged those lost on 9/11 by more than one hundred fold. What bothers me as a pastor about the hypocrisy on both sides is the claim that God is on their side. Implicit in this statement is that God is on our side, and not on your side. It is the latter position that I find troubling. All people of the world have blood lust: a craving for revenge. God asks us to hold all life as precious regardless of nationality or religion. God suffers any time people are killed.
The Jewish people have every right to hold sacred their belief that they are God’s chosen people who God rescued from their captivity from Egypt. But what is fascinating to me is that even among Jewish Rabbis and scholars there is more to this story than what we heard this morning. In addition to the Hebrew Bible, there are centuries of commentary on this morning's scripture in a collateral collection known as midrash. The purpose of midrash is to fill in the blanks or answer questions left unanswered by just the Hebrew text of scripture. It is an interpretive supplement intended as a helpful aid to understanding the scripture. Clergy sometimes call this kind of work exegesis. The midrash account for this scripture, as is sometimes the style of midrash work, tells a story about angels in Heaven watching with delight as God’s plan to liberate the Israelites from slavery in Egypt is about to be fulfilled, and the angels break into song. God weeps as God looks down on the carnage of the Egyptian soldiers drowning in the Red Sea, and God says to the angels that God’s creation is dying and the angels sing?
So how are we to square these two versions, that God sets in motion the delivery of Israelites out of Egyptian bondage while God cries about the drowning Egyptian soldiers? Note where God’s compassion lies: with those who suffer. God suffered to hear the lament of the Israelites for 430 years, and yes, God suffers to see men drowning in the sea as soldiers sent by Pharoah. God suffered when people jumped to their death on 9/11 and God suffers to see drones kill villagers in foreign lands. God does not play favorites, and neither should we. In a world full of moral relativism and what-about-ism, and parochialism which reduces humanity to playing on one of two teams (good guys versus bad guys), the real answer is never that clear. All governments have done good and bad things. All people have done good and bad things. We are called to be honest brokers in this world. To seek the cause of justice. To condemn needless violence in all forms, even violence committed supposedly for our benefit. To hold police accountable when they abuse their authority, while respecting the work they do as dangerous and demanding. To side with the victims of bullying whether in the boardroom or the classroom. To be concerned by tribal violence against innocents in Africa, or the victims of gang violence in America. The belief that God loves some more than others justifies immoral treatment of those who are different. It is an excuse used to justify blood lust, the indiscriminate use of power to justify violence against those who we believe have aggrieved us. But invariably our use of violence extends suffering to innocent people. And God weeps.