Sermon for September 13, 2020
by Rev. Todd Weir
Scripture: Exodus 14
This would be a great time for a Superhero to come in and fix things. How are ancient miracle stories like the parting of the Red Sea relevant to us now? Do you believe Moses commanded the waters to part allowing the dramatic escape of slaves to freedom? Do we really expect God to dramatically intervene, bending the forces of creation as a modern Moses lifts his commanding hand? Do we have to choose between science and faith? Many commentators try to rescue the text by looking for a way the parting of the Red Sea could happen as a natural phenomenon. Under certain tidal and wind conditions, a passageway could temporarily appear, and the Hebrews could walk across the land bridge. The heavy chariots and war horses would get bogged down and stuck when the water closed back in on them. Therefore, this could have been a historical account and later author enhanced it to create Moses as a hero. It’s plausible. But this interpretation is still vulnerable to skepticism. Maybe the slaves got lucky. Maybe Moses was just well versed in the topography of the wilderness, just as Harriet Tubman knew how to lead people through the swamps to the underground railroad.
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Some skeptics say this kind of miracle story is exactly why they don’t trust the Bible and it shows how faith is just waiting around for a non-existent divinity and superhero to save them. On the other hand, why do people who dismiss the Bible as irrelevant fairy tales stand in line for an hour to see the latest X-Men or Avengers movie? The top-grossing movies of all-time include four different Avenger movies, two of the Star Wars epic, Harry Potter, Black Panther, the X-Men series – and of course Frozen. Marvel comics dominate the big box office bucks. Only Disney competes. Titanic is the only real outlier in the top 10. Somehow Moses and his magical staff helping free slaves through plagues and parting the sea is a hokey religious fantasy, but we will people will pay $15 for a ticket and tub of popcorn to see Storm change the weather patterns or Superman to orbit the planet fast enough to take it back in time.
It is fascinating that modern society is simultaneously discarding the mythological aspects of the Bible while Hollywood is creating new superhero myths that captivate larger audiences than church attendance. Apparently, we crave people with superpowers to save us from evil and injustice. A recent study verified our psychological need for intervening heroes.
According to recent research from Kyoto University in Japan, humans are drawn to heroes from the early stages of development — before we can even talk. In a series of experiments, preverbal infants as young as six months were shown short animations in which one figure chased and bumped into a second. Meanwhile, a third figure watched from afar. In one version, the third figure steps in and prevents the collision, and in the other, it runs away without intervening.
After watching the clips, the infants were presented with replicas of the intervening and non-intervening third figures, and they consistently preferred the one who saved the day.
This scripture follows the classic storyline of the hero’s rescue. First, things have to be at the brink of destruction. Here are the Hebrew slaves, traveling as families with children and camped at the edge of the sea. They are trapped between the waters and Pharaoh’s army. 600 chariots are about to thunder down and annihilate them. The people sense their doom and cry out to Moses, “Were there not enough graves already in Egypt? Why did you bring us out here in the wilderness to die? Maybe slavery wasn’t so bad after all.” We understand the plotline. The Death Star is nearing the last rebel base and only a few X-wing fighters are left to find the small vulnerable air duct. “Trust the force, Luke.” The Joker has set up his nightmare scenario and Batman is running out of options. Superman is suddenly stopped by kryptonite and all seems to be lost. You can’t have a good superhero story unless the villains are diabolical and powerful and everything is on the line.
Without a miracle, we expect the Alamo to be overrun, the tanks will roll into Prague and the Iron Curtain closes, firehouses and dogs are set up against the nonviolent protestors at the Pettis Bridge, we see a rising tide of authoritarian leaders dismantling courts, voting rights, even the post office. We long for a decisive turnaround, where villains get their due, and a new era of justice and peace breaks forth. But even myths don’t always give us such moral and historical clarity. Humanity just gets another chance to try again to get it right as the dangers persist. The Hebrew slaves get through the Red Sea and the chariots are destroyed, the army drowned; but now they are out in the wilderness. The history of Israel seems to play the scenario over and over as conquerors continue to threaten. Assyria, Babylon, Alexander the Great, Rome, centuries of pogroms throughout Europe. Heroes abound. Joshua wins the battle of Jericho, David defeats Goliath, Daniel lives through the lion’s den, Esther’s courage saves the people in exile. But Israel also endures destruction, exile, conquests, and the Holocaust.
The biblical narrative is not always straightforward. It contains the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. What does this mean for us as we feel camped by the waters of the Red Sea?
It’s helpful to go back to the oldest recorded story told by humans. The Enuma Elish, a Babylon creation account, portrays the world beginning in the chaos of swirling, raging waters. The waters divide between bitter and sweet, and the first gods represented each. Rival gods fight bloody battles until Marduk vanquishes Tiamat, and humans are created from the dead bodies of the rival gods. Humans are created to serve the gods in holding back chaos.
The Hebrew scriptures formed as a complete canon while Israel was in exile in Babylon. The Genesis creation account was written as a counter-narrative to the Enuma Elish. Genesis 1 also portrays a God actively creating amid chaos, forming all good things including human beings. The Creator God separates land from waters by blowing across the surface of the earth and bringing forth a new creation. In the Exodus story, we see again this creator God, blowing the winds across the Red Sea and creating land for the Hebrew slaves to walk across. This is the next act in the ongoing work of creation. This time God is creating justice. The winds of the Spirit that brought the form of the world into being can also bring a newly liberated people into being.
What the text says to me is that God is the relentless creative force of the universe who keeps working towards the flourishing and vitality of all of life. Destructive chaos always threatens this work, but God’s creative love endures. It is not simply a struggle between good vs. evil. Life must always strive towards creativity to continue. The drama of Pharaoh and Moses is just one episode of this ongoing dynamic of chaos vs. creativity. Pharaoh is in the role of chaos, bringing suffering and injustice to enslaved people. This brings disorder to all of creation, the land is full of plagues and the Egyptian people are diminished and suffer because of the hardness of Pharaoh’s heart. Moses is summoned by the God of creative forces, called at the burning bush, summoning all the natural forces of wind and water to join in the creative efforts towards justice.
What deeply moves me about this storyline is that human beings are not bystanders waiting on God to save them. Humans must overcome their fear and act in the face of chaos. Moses may have superhero courage to face the difficult odds, but the whole people must flee after Passover. Everyone has to take the step of walking through the parted waters in the face of danger. As we follow this saga throughout September, we see the pattern repeat. People continue to confront fear, wrestle with Moses and God, wondering if they should go back and serve the powerful forces of chaos in Egypt. Together God and Moses continue to forge a way where there was no way. There is never a decisive victory, but the creativity of love and justice will not relent.
So here we are now. Chaos feels very real to me. Our nation is divided. Racial injustice dominates our news. Corruption infuriates us. It feels like democracy is on the line in November. If only we had the plans to find the weakness of the Death Star. If only we could see Moses raise his staff, or the Avengers would unite and fight for us.
I find hope in this ancient story. My hope is still in the creative God, the God who created us in their image and likeness. If we truly believe this can we dare to believe there is a hero within us too? I don’t feel like a superhero. I often feel small and powerless. But I’m willing to do my share. What creative forces lie within each of us? Can our little bursts of creative love in action join with great powers and sweep over the chaos and create a way where there was no way? I’m willing to try if you are. We can do this. This is our story, the oldest story.