Today's text from Exodus opens with the people of Israel on the edge of promise. Behind lay Egypt and bondage. Ahead lay the wilderness and freedom. As Moses leads his people to the Red Sea passage, the God of Israel sends an "ancient wind" from the east. In the words of Levi Yitshak Berdichov writing two centuries age:
The Ruach Kadim is "ancient wind" through which God does not suspend the laws of nature to work miracles. Rather, the wind that divided the sea had been created for that purpose at the time of the creation of the world.
There on the edge of promise, even as the ancient wind was beginning to stir, fear overcame the people. Midrashic writings tell us that one faithful man fearlessly marched into the sea.. His name: Nahshon, son of Amninadab. Only then did Yahweh separate water from sea bed and make a way where there was no way.
It was the faith of one man that opened the sea. Faith, in the Hebrew Bible is not a belief in doctrine or Creed. Faith refers to trust and loyalty expressed through commitment and obedience. Such loyalty and obedience paved the path to freedom. Faith is about action, not about thoughts. From faith - Yahweh does for Israel what they could not (and cannot do) for themselves. Yahweh, who is a God of mercy and justice delivers the people from their oppression. And this deliverance comes, not because Israel is superior, or in any way better than other people and nations. Deliverance comes because (in the words of Deuteronomy 7:8) "Yahweh loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors."
Through the faith of one man and through the leadership of Moses, one God's special agents, the people are delivered and Pharaoh's army drowns in the sea as the wall of water envelopes them. As we consider the devastation of Pharoah's army, we might also read on in middle eastern legend. Legend has it that the Pharoah survived the closing of the sea - the only Egyptian to do so. Because he had learned his lesson, legend continues, he was appointed King of Nineveh. Later, he led his people through penitential prayer and fasting to avert disaster in the face of Jonah's decree. When Pharaoh died, the story continues, he was stationed at the gates of the underworld, where he would greet the tyrants of history with the words: "Why did you not learn from my example?" That question haunts every generation of oppressors since.
Beyond legend and rabbinical teachings, on that day so long ago, the great hand of God cut off the tyrannous hand of Egypt and God's people were saved.
But, as we learn from the texts of Exodus 15ff, getting Israel out of Egypt proves to be the easy part for God. The harder part is getting Egypt out of Israel. By this, I mean Israel "moves out" but they don't "move on". "They get stuck in the wilderness - slavery behind, freedom ahead. For the next forty years they are stuck in the wilderness. Stuckness defines the next stage of their life together. They grumble, bicker, fight, worship fake Gods, and blame others (including Moses and Aaron) for all their problems and wilderness wandering. They repeat this cycle over and over. It literally takes a change in several generations to get Egypt and the slavery and oppression out of the souls of God's People!
I find it too easy to talk about way back then! So allow me to bring it home. How is it with your soul? Have you ever had a problem moving on from a crisis in your life? Have you ever felt stuck? Have you ever wandered in a spiritual desert - where your trail is covered over by the seemingly God-less dry wind pushing you into an unrevealed future?
Do you have trouble moving on? In the exodus story of your life - can you identify the place and time God loved you so much, he saved you with the ancient wind - and yet - now you find yourself unable to breathe and begin anew in the liberated light of God's Love?
We get Stuck in the pity parties of our past, even while God is whispering: "Move on. Go forward." What we miss when we leave the Exodus Story in the Wilderness is this: God's miracles don't end on the other side of the Red Sea! God sends quail and manna for food, God send clouds to cover the desert sun by day and a pillar of fire to guide their path by night.
In our desert wanderings and seeming stuckness, God sends signs as well. The kindness of strangers, the comfort of friends, a call, a smile, a package unannounced, the touch of a child, the encouragement of a parent, the community of the faithful in prayer and worship, the community of the faithful in fellowship and love. All of these serve as signs, wonders, even miracles in the desert lostness of our lives. Pay attention to the signs and wonders as you as wander. They are no less than road maps to the promised land of peace.
Four years ago I received such a sign and a gift on a visit to Shanksville, PA. - it is a heart pin with colors of our flag painted by the children in Shanksville PA. Many of you know that Shanksville, PA is the small hamlet in the western foothills of the Appalachian mountains, where, on September 11, 2001, the Passengers of Flight 93 courageously wrestled the airliner away from terrorists and crashed the plane - killing no one on the ground! On October 9 (4 weeks to the day after this disaster), the Principal of the K-12 school gave a pin like this to Daniel, Sarah and me. As she did, she told the story of that day to us. She said that as the plane crashed - a fire ball exploded just across the ridge from where the school stands. Pieces of the plane severed the treetops which were within plain sight of the school. She said, the FAA told her that the plane was on a trajectory that would have brought it directly on the school 1 or 2 seconds later- a school where 522 of the all the children K-12 in that part of the county were studying that clear, crisp September morning. She said, "The hand of God spared us. We were delivered from death."
She said, "now the children greet the families of the deceased. When the families come to town, we all gather, grades K-12 in the cafeteria and sing a musical medley to them. We listen to them tell about their loved ones. We minister to them. Our curriculum is now to care for the families of the dead. Our text, the lives of their loved ones who died across that ridge." Then she finished, "We have seen enough suffering in these last 4 weeks to last us a lifetime." These haunting words echo through my mind and heart four years to the day later.
When will we and how will we move on from 9/11? It has been four years. I think of another date that lives in infamy - December 7, 1941. By the time Pearl Harbor day reached its 4th Anniversary - 12/7/45, the war was over. Millions of people had died, but the rebuilding had begun. At our fourth anniversary, this war of terror and attrition seems to have no end in sight.
Whereas Economic Power helped eventually win WWII (with the Marshall Plan - particularly), the war against terrorism will finally only be won by Economic Justice. In his book CREDO, William Sloan Coffin reminds us:
There is nothing metaphysical about terrorism. It springs from specific historical causes - political oppression and economic deprivation. Until these injustices and our complicity in their furtherance are faced, our escalating counter violence will predictably result in more and more terrorists attacking more and more American institutions at home and abroad. (Coffin Credo, p. 92)
As Plato reminds us across the years "only the dead have seen an end to war". More military might and less economic justice will never bring an end to terror. If you doubt this, study the microcosm experience of Israel/Palestine. There have witnessed more military might in response to terrorism; larger walls, bigger barricades, greater economic depravation and continued violence. It has and will take economic changes over generations to stop this cycle of violent stuckness. In addition, London's bombers show us that terror is eventually homegrown. Truthfully: more killing, more military will produce more terrorists.
Like the Principal of Shanksville's area school, "We have seen enough killing to last a lifetime." My children, your children and grandchildren, the children of Iraq and Afghanistan have seen enough killing and suffering to last a lifetime.
We are blessed by a Savior who gives us a way out of the desert wanderings of our lives and of our nation's life. In Matthew 18:21-25, he tells his followers (which includes us) to forgive when we are wronged. While the acceptable Judaic law rate of forgiveness is three times, Peter asks if seven times will be enough. In Matthew Jesus says, "seventy-seven times." In Luke, he says, seven times seventy! - 490!" In other words, forgive until YOU hear it, YOU live it, YOU feel it, YOU know it! When you do so, you will feel as if you have received mercy and of the hand of charity rather than the sword of justice.
To find our way out of the desert - the desert of our personal lives and even the desert of Iraq - we must reach with our moral imagination to the promised land of possibility.
If we have learned anything about war in the past 100 years, we have learned that our capacity, as a human race for destruction has exceeded our reach of moral imagination. While our capacity to destroy is virtually unlimited - in fact have the capacity to destroy the earth and all its inhabitants 77 times - our capacity to imagine, to feel, to respond, seems more and more limited. We are living beyond our moral grasp. We have lost sight of our Savior and our teacher's lesson plan.
Now is the time to deploy the Jesus survival strategy - for those of us, and our children and the world's children - who have suffered too much already. Now is the time for the "ancient wind", the Ruach Kadim to blow! As the rabbis taught through the model of Nahshon, son of Amninadab, it only takes one man, one woman to begin the shift.
Forgive those who have wronged you.
Forgive your enemy (local & international).
Forgive - 77 times! Or if you need - 490 times!
Forgive - not until it hurts but until you are whole!
In so doing your moral imagination will be revived. And, a highway out of the desert will become a reality. Amen.
People of God, It is time to move on. Amen
Copyright 2005, The First Congregational Church