Rev. Melanie Harrell Delaney
September 14, 2014
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.
Have you ever been in the midst of a fog so thick and deep that you could barely see a foot in front of you? I remember driving one morning before dawn, Tyler and the twins asleep in the car as we drove home from Nebraska last year. At 3 am in the morning that day, not another car could be seen driving down the dark interstate. All of a sudden, a cloud of fog descended on the road. The beams of the car’s headlights bounced off of the thick wall of moisture and I could barely see the white and yellow lines on the dark pavement pointing me forward. I slowed the car to a measly pace as my knuckles turned white on the steering wheel. Where was the road? What was in front of me? Could I be sure I was still in the right lane? Eventually another car pulled alongside me and I was relieved to follow the glow of his tail-lights until the fog lifted.
I remember thinking how powerful a cloud can be – amazed at how a billion minute water droplets could completely obscure one’s view beyond a few feet. A cloud holds water, the basis of life and promise of sustenance. A cloud can mean life-giving rain or a powerful and destructive storm. A cloud can bring relief in the form of shade from the glaring sun, or it can form a barrier in which none can find their way.
Such is the case in our scripture passage for this week – the story of Moses leading the Israelite people to freedom with their former captors, the Egyptian army, in hot pursuit. Picture this: a well-equipped army, with shiny armor and metal spears, food and water and power in abundance, runs full-force from the city toward the desert. Hundreds of young, well-muscled men on horseback and riding in chariots brightly adorned race toward the horizon...where a rag-tag group of former slaves limps along toward what they can only hope to be freedom. Men, women, and children, young and old, carrying all that they own on their backs as they go step by step into the future. Elders urging the young ones to pick up their feet, to pick up the pace, as word reaches the front that the distance between the two crowds narrows. The Hebrew people run and pray, pray and run, while the sound of their former captor’s trumpets grow louder. How will they possibly outrun their enemies, they wonder aloud, with worried tone.
Day turns into evening, which turns to night. Still the people run. Scripture tells us that just when the darkness seems too deep, just when Moses and his people start to falter, God moves into action. Word spreads throughout the crowd, of a pillar of cloud that had taken up residence to the rear of the group. A fog so thick that they couldn’t see or hear the Egyptian army behind them. A cloud of white that glowed so brightly that Exodus tells us it “lit up the night.” The Egyptians could not see two feet in front of them. They were forced to pause. The Hebrews were safe…for now. They cheered and ran on.
Until they were forced to stop dead in their tracks. In front of them lay a body of water, too deep to walk across. The Hebrew people wailed in despair. “How could God bring us this far, only to be caught now?”Caught between a rock and a hard place, they were. The Sea of Reeds, or the Red Sea, lay perilously in front of them and a malicious army closing in behind them. To try to swim across the sea was out of the question for many, not to mention the trouble of getting supplies through the water. But to stay put meant death, or return to slavery, or both.
But Exodus tells us that “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.”
I wonder who led the Israelites through the waters. Who took that first step onto the dry land that shouldn’t have been dry, the pathway through the water that shouldn’t have been there, the waters that were divided by a force beyond that of nature. Was he scared, as he took that first step forward? Did he tremble and look back? Or did he take a deep breath and move forward with purpose and trust, his foot feeling steady on the dry ground pointing forward?
There are two words for “dry land” used in this passage. One is yabbashah. This Hebrew word is most often used in descriptions of the miracle of the Red Sea (Exodus 14:16, 22, 29, 15:19, Psalm 66:6 and Nehemiah 9:11). descriptions of the miracle of the Red Sea (Exodus 14:16, 22, 29, 15:19, Psalm 66:6 and Nehemiah 9:11). Yabbashah is the dusty ground that led the Hebrew people ahead to freedom, the stable ground upon which they walked. It also describes God’s work in creation, when God gathers all of the water of the earth into unified oceans and seas, leaving “dry ground” for animals and humans to inhabit; Dry ground that sustains and provides a home.
But there is another word for “dry land” that also appears in our scripture passage this morning. Charabah appears in Exodus 14:21 and is derived from the root word meaning “to dry up” or be in ruins. Biblical interpreters say that this version doesn’t merely distinguish between liquid and solid, water and its absence, a place to swim and a place to walk. Instead it’s often interpreted as pointing toward waste and desolation that follows warfare, judgment, and destruction.
Exodus 14:21 is part of the story that comes next: “The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers…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.”
For the Hebrew people, “dry land” meant safety and security, but for the Egyptian people, “dry land” meant death and destruction.
The story of Exodus is the story of freedom and hope for the Israelite people, the Hebrew people. It’s a story of God’s power to create from nothing, to make a way out of no way. It’s the power by which God saves and transforms—one in which God reveals a path for God’s people to travel. And yet, “the crossing of this path remains treacherous. Though there is light in this new creation, there is also darkness.” The road to freedom wasn’t exactly rainbows and sunshine.
There’s a popular saying that you might have heard before: “When God closes a door, he opens a window.” It’s like those old wives tales, in that it’s a saying that has been passed down from generation to generation because people have found truth in it. It implies that there is always a path forward in life and faith, even if it’s not the obvious, or most desirable one.
I’ve thought about that phrase a lot this summer, as Tyler and I have done all we could do to sell our house up in South Euclid. Many of you know that we had hoped to sell our house up there so that we could move closer to the church here. The original reasons we bought a house 25 minutes away from the church no longer hold, and it just seemed like things were lining up in our lives to make moving this summer the best thing to do. So we exhausted ourselves cleaning, organizing, storing, and painting, while also parenting 2-year-old twins. We worked so hard, prayed so hard, and made lots of sacrifices to keep our house clean and ready for showing. We felt that God was calling us to move, to be more invested in this community by living here, to be closer to family (and childcare). We trusted that all of our hard work would pay off.
But 5 months later…we haven’t had a single bite on the house. I’ve prayed all the prayers: prayers letting God know our deepest desires, prayers asking for help with decisions, prayers of letting go and trusting God’s movement in it all (while still telling God what direction I’d prefer that movement to be…but mostly letting go.) So now here we are, 3 weeks from baby Delaney’s due date, not quite sure what to do. Do we keep our house on the market, trusting that sense we had earlier in the spring that this was the time to try to sell? Do we risk selling our house and having to pack up and move with a newborn? Do we take the house off the market, even though we were so sure this was what we needed to do? It’s a small problem, and our family will be fine no matter what, but in our prayers as of late we’ve felt the tension, the stuckness, between a rock and a hard place. We don’t necessarily see any open doors or open windows. So we wait and watch.
You’ve felt that way before, too, right? When the prayers just don’t seem to be leading to answers, when the pathway ahead isn’t quite as clear as it was for the Israelites when the Red Sea parted in front of them. You’ve known times when it seems like you’re up against a wall (of water, of brick, of emotional or physical or financial struggle) on one side and an army threatening to destroy you on another? You’ve known times when it seems like there is no way forward, when the fog that might stand between you and the army also seems to surround and confound you? Times when you pray, and cry, and fear for the future, or want to scream and charge recklessly toward the “enemy,” whatever it might be.
We’ve all been there. Or we’re there right now. Or we’ll be there at some point in the future: Stuck; Unsure; Fearful or anxious about a future that doesn’t seem to hold much hope in either direction. We understand the power of this story in scripture because we understand what’s at stake: hope. We understand the fear that threatens to overpower us like an army when we feel trapped.
So let’s go back to what happened that day on the Red Sea: when Moses raised his staff and the waters parted, when a path of dry ground appeared in front of the Israelite people, but a path of dry ground that was also completely overshadowed by immense walls of powerful water. A path of dry ground that could so very easily go from the kind of “dry ground” that is life giving in creation, to the kind of “dry ground” that results from the aftermath of destruction and war. Think about the courage it took for the first Israelite to step onto that dry ground, trusting that the path would lead not to death, but to freedom.
This is a story of a literal “stepping out in faith.”
And it’s a story that asks us to consider how and where and when we are willing to step out in faith. This story asks us to take stock of the fear that might keep us paralyzed, curled up in a ball, or constantly ready to fight. It asks us to walk through the cloud that obscures our vision into the far future, to look deeply into the powerful waters that appear as a wall of impossibility, to face the darkness and the light together, and trust God enough to step forward in faith.
Gerald Janzen writes beautifully about this kind of faith, which she calls “the willingness to pick up and carry one’s fear in one’s bosom…and go forward in the direction that trust calls for.” The people of Israel, Janzen writes, “are saved in a double sense. Not only are they delivered from the power of Egypt but they are also delivered from the power of their fear and their doubt.”
The moral of the story is that whether we’re facing a foe as formidable as an ancient empire or as immobilizing as our own fear, God is there to deliver us. Such is the truth of the Exodus, and the Israelite people, as well as the message Jesus proclaimed over and over again in his time on earth. It’s in the gospel of Luke chapter 4 that Jesus proclaims his mission to “bring liberty to the captives.”
The story of our faith is one of liberation – from oppression, from fear, from the powers of the world around us that try to entrap us: greed, anger, fear, self-doubt, among others. The story of our faith is that even when we are surrounded on every side by impossibility, God is busy making a way. A way through the Red Sea and a way down from the cross of crucifixion. A way that leads to freedom and redemption, hope and resurrection.
Poet Minnie Louise Haskins writes,“And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
 Quote by Anathea Portier-Young. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2179
Rev. Melanie Harrell Delaney
September 7, 2014
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; you shall not murder; you shall not steal; you shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 10Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; 12the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; 13let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy.14Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
15 ‘If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. 18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’
I had a hard time with our lectionary scriptures this week. 90% of the time I can read one of the four scripture passages marked for that particular Sunday and feel the Spirit drawing me toward one or the other. 99% of the time, by reading the passages slowly, over and over, pulling out a phrase or two that stands out to me and trying to match that phrase with something else going on – in the church, in the news, in a blog post – I can weave together a sermon that feels right for that particular week, even though the scripture passages have been chosen long before. But this week…this week…
I didn’t have trouble at first. I loved Paul’s words to the Romans: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” It’s a bold statement, in a context of consumerism and rising debt and an individualistic culture of “winners” and “losers.” “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” There is something prophetic and bold in Paul’s words. That one, single, sentence preaches volumes.
And that sentence connected to Matthew’s gospel text – teachings of Jesus that focus on how we love one another. What we do when loving each other is difficult because of sin and hurt and division. These texts made sense to me and I knew there was a sermon here. But I had a hard time pulling it together.
Because I started with Matthew’s gospel text. Some scholars suggest that Jesus didn’t actually say what Matthew records, because this is one of only two times in the gospels where the word “church” (ekklesia) is used.
Jesus didn’t really talk about “church” because Christian groups didn’t start formally identifying themselves as such until after Christ’s death and resurrection. So many scholars suggest that Matthew framed Jesus’ words here with his own Christian community in mind. (Apparently, church conflict is as old as the church itself! I don’t know if that makes me feel better or worse…)Taken as a stand-alone passage, Matthew’s account of Jesus’ words appear to be a guide-book about how to deal with church folks in particular, members of the community who sin against another. I’ve known churches to use this passage as a step by step guide, so I started thinking about what it would look like in practice.
Say a church member steals money from the offering plate as it is passed through the pews. The plate comes by, and this person reaches in as if to place an envelope…and just pulls a few loose bills out as she goes. “No big deal, just a few dollars,” she thinks. But the deacon sees it happen. He doesn’t know what to do, but he remembers this scripture.
‘If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.
Step one. So he pulls her aside after church. “Did you take money from the offering plate during worship?” he asks. “No,” the woman replies. “Well, I saw you take some money from the offering plate today,” the deacon pushes again. “No, I didn’t.” The woman snaps and then walks away.
But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.
Step two. The deacon talks to the pastor and an Elder. They ask to meet with the woman after church the next week. All three enter the room nervously, the woman already on the defense. They sit down. “Ms. Jones, Mr. Deacon here says he saw you take money from the offering plate on Sunday…” “No, I didn’t!” the woman says angrily, “I can’t believe all of you are accusing me of stealing! This is my church! I’m offended!” Walls come up, anger flares, nothing changes.
Okay, so far, I can see this happening in a church, and so far, it’s not too bad but not exactly effective either. But then we get to step three:
If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church
Would we really call a congregational meeting, or spread word around the community, if we thought someone had stolen money, or sinned in another way – say they spread gossip, or sabotaged someone else’s ministry? Would we really call the entire church together to “tell” about the sin publically? What would that accomplish, aside from completely embarrassing or angering the accused? I’m just not so sure…
And then the last step: and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. Basically, if the sinner refuses to repent, to acknowledge and apologize for the sin, even after being caught and confronted by one, three, and the entire community…they are to be treated as outsiders.
Really, Jesus? Excommunicate the sinner? That doesn’t sound much like you…nor does it sound all that effective in practice. No matter what “sin” one against another I could think of, I couldn’t imagine bringing it to a congregational meeting and/or excommunicating someone because of it.
I read and re-read the passage. Then I read and re-read the passage from Romans. “Owe no one anything except to love them.” There was something I was missing.
So I did what I usually do when I don’t understand a piece of scripture. I read what came before and what comes after. Context. It matters a great deal. Aha! Here’s what I found:
In the first 14 verses of Matthew 18, Jesus tells a familiar parable. A shepherd and his 100 sheep. One sheep wanders off and is lost. The shepherd leaves the 99 others unguarded to go and find the one. The shepherd’s primary goal is to bring the one back into the flock. God is like a shepherd who will leave ninety-nine sheep to themselves, Jesus says, in order to find the one that has gone astray So the first 14 verses of this chapter are about inclusion. In the 14 verses that follow our passage (vs. 21-35), Peter asks a question about forgiveness, “how many times must I forgive someone?” Seventy times seven, Jesus says- or about as many times as it takes to love your neighbor back into right relationship with you. And then Jesus follows up his instructions with a stark parable about what may happen to those who cannot extend God’s forgiveness to others. So the last 14 verses of the chapter are about forgiveness. Our scripture passage this morning is book-ended by inclusion and forgiveness!
Inclusion and forgiveness. What happens if we re-read our passage in the light of inclusion and forgiveness? What if inclusion and forgiveness are the unspoken goal of Jesus’ instructions to the church community? What if this passage in the middle of chapter 18 isn’t a guidebook for how to inform another of the ways they’ve wronged us? What if it’s not a step-by step guide to earn an apology.
Following Jesus’ intent, the primary goal of this passage isn’t to change someone’s behavior, or demonstrate how he is wrong, or even to invite her to repentance. In fact, it’s not really about righting the wrong done…
it’s about restoring the relationship. The goal is to speak truthfully about the breach or hurt you are experiencing, taking responsibility for your feelings and actions and then inviting the other person to do the same. It’s about opening up a conversation that you might find a way forward together. Speaking not just to but also with each other, holding each other accountable through vulnerability rather than by force.
To speak the truth in love, with love, for the sake of love.
That’s what we owe one another. Not a declaration of who did right and who did wrong, grudges and debt, not winners and losers, but vulnerability, conversation, and love.
So what does this look like, following our scripture passage this morning? Here’s what I imagine: Say someone sins against you. Maybe they steal something from you, or the church, maybe they spread gossip, maybe they hurt you in another way. What do you do?
‘If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.
If you have been hurt or injured by someone, pull them aside privately. Do not rip them to shreds in front of others, make passive aggressive comments in the parking lot, or shove your hurt down deep inside only to let it bubble and boil over at a later time. Speak to your brother or sister. Bring it up. Tell them you’ve been hurt or injured or wronged. But, but, here’s the twist: bring it up not because you think you’re right, not to earn an apology…but to “regain that one.” The point of bringing the sin to light is not to “win” an apology, or to be right, but to restore a relationship with the person who has hurt you. Restoring the relationship – that sounds a lot like inclusion, doesn’t it? Renewing the ties that are broken – that takes forgiveness, doesn’t it?
It also takes a willingness to be vulnerable, to put yourself in another person’s shoes. So say someone has wronged you, and your task is to love them enough to restore a relationship even though you are angry or hurt or sad. How can you do that? Start by trying to see them as God sees them. Pray and ask God for new eyes. Try to see the one who has sinned against you as the beloved child of God that they are. Keep trying until you do see them that way – until you can see their struggle, their pain, their grief as much as you can feel and see your own. Then, and only then, is it time to speak to them in private, not for the purpose of accusing, but for the purpose of understanding why they might have done what they did. What caused them to sin, to stray? Out of love, your task is to find out how to help them back into right relationship with you, with God, and with the community.
It’s the same with steps 2-4. If a one-on-one conversation doesn’t restore relationship, others are brought in. Not to accuse, not as back-up so that it’s 4-1. Others are brought in to witness, to love, to mediate and restore broken relationships. And if the problem is still bigger and brought to the entire church community? Again, it’s not to accuse…not to name names and force an apology and punishment. It has to be to help, to love, guide with care and concern. It has to be like the shepherd who left the 99 in order to bring back the one. Even when Matthew speaks of letting “such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector,” he is meaning that we ought to do for them what Jesus did for Gentiles and tax-collectors: seek them out, eat with them, invite them in. It’s not excommunication, but once again, inclusion. Right relationship.
As a fellow pastor says, (David Lose) “the key is to put being in relationship above being right, and to take incredibly seriously how much God wants us all to be in good relationship with each other and with God.”
I heard a story this week on a podcast called Radio Lab, about a man named Hector, whose daughter was brutally murdered. Hector admitted that prior to the man’s trial, Ivan was his name, Hector wanted nothing more than for Ivan to receive the death penalty. But at the trial, Hector is compelled to read a statement in which he says, “I wish for all of us who have been so wounded by this crime, I wish that we would find God’s peace…and I wish that also for you, Ivan Simpson.” And as he finished his statement, Hector sees tears streaming from Ivan’s eyes and he describes the look on his face as “a soul in hell.”
Ivan is sentenced to years in prison, and the trial is over but Hector can’t get the look of torment in Ivan’s eyes out of his own mind and heart. Hector writes Ivan a letter in prison, wondering what Ivan’s life had been like – what had led him to do such a thing as murder. Profoundly, the letter begins with these words: “I forgive you...”
Ivan writes back, describing a childhood none of us could even bear to imagine. Hector follows with another letter, and Ivan with another. Over time, the two men begin to understand each other, and surprisingly, astoundingly, even become friends of a sort. It’s an amazing story to listen to. (If you’d like to listen to it, look up the podcast title “Dear Hector” at www.radiolab.org)
It all started with vulnerability. A letter. Repentance and forgiveness. Relationship Restored. God’s desire. Kingdom on Earth.
This morning I’d like you to think about a time you have been hurt or sinned against. Whether long in the past or just yesterday, something small or earth-shattering, bring to mind a relationship that has been harmed in some way – maybe a sibling fight that was never resolved, a co-worker who did something to hurt you, or maybe a time when you did something you regret that hurt another person. Bring to mind a broken relationship. Take a few minutes if you need to, to pray and think of them through God’s eyes – as a beloved child of God with gifts and hopes as well as struggles, pain, and mistakes. Pray as Hector did – for God’s peace.” Pray to love them as you love yourself.
And then take a piece of paper and pencil that is provided in the pews. Begin a letter to that person. Whether or not you ever finish or send the letter isn’t the point. But begin it.
Pastor Melanie is a preacher, mother, singer, and too-much-coffee-drinker. She is passionate about creative worship and finding God in the midst of our every-day.