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Object Lessons

The Reverend Matt Gaventa

July 8, 2018
Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21

A Reading from the Book of Exodus

As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites looked back, and there were the Egyptians advancing on them. In great fear the Israelites cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, ‘Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, “Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians”? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.’ But Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.’

Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. But you lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the Israelites may go into the sea on dry ground. Then I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them; and so I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army, his chariots, and his chariot drivers. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I have gained glory for myself over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his chariot drivers.’

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.

Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. And Miriam sang to them: ‘Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.’

I know you’ve heard this one 1000 times. Moses. The Red Sea. The army. The water. Maybe you’ve heard it as scripture; maybe you’ve heard it as time with the younger church, maybe you’ve just seen it in the movies; maybe you’ve got Charlton Heston raising the staff over the best special effects that classical Hollywood had to offer, or maybe your vision is something more contemporary, but I know you’ve heard this one 1000 times before. That’s the danger in preaching this series on the Easter Vigil texts; these readings, by definition, are some of the touchstone stories of the Old Testament and so it feels a bit like we’re preaching on the Greatest Hits and I’m sure a few of you could say the words along with me, or like we could make this text into one of those read-a-long videos where the little bouncing ball follows along with the words. You’ve heard this one 1000 times before, and maybe even by now you know the chorus — “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea!”

Nonetheless, this morning I’d like to tell you this story one more time, but I want to approach it a bit differently. Consider this not as the story of the parting of the Red Sea. Consider this not as the story of the demise of Pharaohs’ army or even as the story of Israel’s escape into the wilderness. Let me tell you the story again, one more time, but this morning, let me tell you the story of Moses and his staff. Moses and his staff is a story that starts not here at the edge of the Red Sea but rather years earlier, the very first time that Moses ever talks to God — here’s another one you’ve heard 1000 times. Moses comes to the mountain of Horeb, and God shows up in the burning bush, and God tells Moses to go to Egypt and bring God’s people out of slavery, and Moses says, “And who may I say is calling?” and God says “I am who I am.” And you’ve heard a few sermons on that one, too.

But what you may not have heard is that Moses at this moment does not entirely know what to do with this new direction in his life. He doesn’t feel entirely confident that if he just shows up in Egypt and starts giving directions on God’s behalf that anybody’s going to give him the time of day. “But suppose they do not believe me or listen to me, but say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you.’” At which point, on the mountain of Horeb, God decides to teach Moses an object lesson. “What is that in your hand?” God says, and Moses says, “A staff.” And God says, “Throw it on the ground.” So Moses throws the staff on the ground, and it becomes a snake; and Moses draws back from it. Then the LORD says to Moses, “Reach out your hand, and seize it by the tail”—so he reaches out his hand and grasps it, and it becomes a staff again. This is a bit of a parlor trick, exactly as it sounds. But presumably if Moses repeats it in front of Pharaoh it will astound him into believing that Moses is who he says.

But Moses is still unconvinced. As biographer Jonathan Kirsch puts it, “No one can accuse Moses of being a yes man to the almighty.” And here we are: Moses still protests, he tells God that he’s no good with words, he can barely speak, and God angrily concedes the point — fine, your brother Aaron can do the talking, but Moses, you take in your hand this staff, with which you shall perform the signs.” Actually, Moses and Aaron both get in on the action. Once they reach Egypt, and begin their confrontations with Pharaoh, the staff is very much in play. First, Moses and Aaron both do the snake trick, but it doesn’t quite win the argument. And so as promised, God begins to send plagues after Egypt in order to convince Pharaoh to let the Israelites go, but these plagues. time and again, are instigated by Moses and Aaron and their staffs. They lift up their staffs and the rivers turn to blood. They lift up their staffs and frogs come out of the waters. They lift up their staffs and insects take over the city.

All of this, of course, is prelude, and you have already heard the main event. The main event is at the Red Sea. Israel has fled from the city, but Pharaoh’s armies are at their heels, there is nowhere to turn. They go one way, they drown. They go the other way, they die by the sword, and time is running out. And this is the climax of the whole thing. Moses, who didn’t think he was up to any of this, but practice makes perfect, and Moses has been practicing with the staff. He’s seen Aaron do it, and now, he’s done it, too, and now, he can do the snake trick in his sleep. He can raise it up and God knows what will happen. Gone is the Moses from ten chapters ago who would have argued back until God gave up and went home. Gone is the Moses who would have litigated that moment to death until Pharaoh showed up and made it official. Instead, here, with the water on one side and death on the other. Here, God says, one last time, “Raise up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the Israelites may go into the sea on dry ground.”

And the music swells. And the camera slowly creeps in. And, God help him, Moses does it. You know that part. You know the rest. Moses does it. Moses does it because he’s done it a thousand times before. Because by this point in the story, it’s totally familiar. It’s a habit. It’s a ritual. It’s a discipline. It’s a practice.

And of course, we all have things that we practice. You practice piano, or you practice soccer, or you practice not honking at the guy on Mo-Pac who cuts you off. And in some ways, that’s precisely what Moses is doing; he’s practicing with the symbol of authority that God has given him for that time and place, and he accomplishes with practice on this staff what I have never accomplished at soccer practice which is that over time he gets better at it. Which I take to be the very purpose of practicing in the first place. But of course, Moses isn’t just practicing on an instrument. He’s practicing faith. In a very literal sense, he’s practicing his confidence in who God has called him to be. He’s practicing with the very literal symbol of God’s purpose for him and in practice, he transforms from somebody who cannot believe it’s true into somebody who stands on at the water’s edge and makes the dry land appear. And somewhere along the line, when we talk about practicing our faith or having a spiritual discipline, I think we have lost this particular shade in the meaning, which is that the reason we have to practice our faith in the first place is because there is so much room for improvement. And furthermore, because we never know when we might be called into the fray.

Jewish tradition of course abounds with spiritual discipline and daily practice. One of the cornerstones of that practice is the daily recitation of the Shema, the essential Jewish prayer that begins with the invocation from Deuteronomy 6: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” These words are widely considered to be the most important part of any Jewish prayer service; in strict practice, they’re spoken out loud twice daily. Parents teach this prayer to children at bedtime, in accordance both with generations of rehearsal and with Biblical commandment. The point of it, of course, is not simply that you learn the words or satisfy the legal stipulation. The point is that you practice it so that you have it when you need it. In the Talmud there is the story of a rabbi who recites the Shema while being tortured to death, and finishes on his last breath, and now it is traditional to recite the Shema particularly when one expects to die. And then, not so many years ago we have the story of Roi Klein, a major in the Israeli army, who jumped on a grenade to save his fellow soldiers — and as he did it, he recited the Shema. That’s the reason we practice. So that we have it when we need it.

It’s true for us, too. Every Sunday, our service finds its way to the Lord’s Prayer, and we say the words we’ve said a thousand times before, Our Father, who art in heaven. With some frequency we include the words of the Apostle’s Creed, I believe in God the Father Almighty. We proclaim the words of pardon, that in Jesus Christ you are forgiven, healed, and made whole. We celebrate the familiar and repetitious liturgies of worship, as we pass the peace with one another, or as we sing that God welcomes all, as we pass out gifts to the new guests in our midst. Or we gather at the table and enter into the sacrament for the thousand and first time, that on the night of his arrest, our savior took bread, and after giving thanks, he broke it. And I know that these moments are not always the most exciting parts of worship. I know that they are in some ways not even the most visible parts of worship. There is an invisibility, which is born of familiarity, which is born of repetition. But there’s a reason we repeat them. We don’t do it because we have to. We don’t do it because we’re supposed to. We don’t do it because it’s easy. We do it because we’re practicing. We do it because we’re rehearsing. We do it so that we have those deep words and rhythms of faith carved into our hearts, just in case we need them.

And we do need them.

I have this conversation a lot. I’ve had it with a few of you. It all takes different forms every time, but underneath is the pressing question of our theological, lives in this moment in history. And the question is very simple. What do we do? It is well and good, after all, to come into this house of worship and sing our songs and say our prayers and pass the peace, but the world kind of feels like it’s on fire, so what do we do? And of course, I don’t have the whole answer, nor does anybody. But part of it, I am convinced, shows up in this story today. After all, with the Israelites stuck themselves between death and the sea, with their story very much reaching a fever pitch, the thing God calls them to do is not a new thing. The thing that God calls Moses to do is not a new thing. Rather, God calls him into the oldest liturgy that Exodus at this point has to offer, namely, you raise your staff, you spread out your hand, you listen for God. And the world turns upside down. So, the Gospel of the story is that the smallest act of liturgy you can remember is incredibly powerful, and incredibly radical. And the Gospel of this story for this morning is to take that small powerfully radical act of liturgy and make sure you don’t forget it. And so, we come into this house of worship and sing our songs and say our prayers and we pass the peace precisely because they are most powerfully radical things that we can imagine. The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. I believe in God the Father Almighty. In Jesus Christ, you are forgiven, healed, and made whole. And we say them over and over again. Because they are true. And because we need them.

One Saturday last August, theologian and activist Reverend Sekou stood on the downtown mall in Charlottesville, Virginia, on a day now buried in infamy. Sekou was part of a group of people of faith that had organized to provide a nonviolent witness next to the hundreds of Nazis marching through town. They were there to show their solidarity in response. They were trained; they had determined not to get into shouting matches; they were there to stand in silent protest. But as the temperature rose, and as the tone escalated, Reverend Sekou could feel his crowd slipping away. They were surrounded by the ugliest kinds of chants, “You Will Not Replace Us,” and “Blood and Soil” and others that I will not repeat, and Sekou could feel the situation becoming less and less stable. He needed to focus the energy of his supporters. He needed to speak something into the storm. He needed to do something to find a way through the turbulent waters. And so, he reached back, into himself to find something that everybody could sing. Something rehearsed in Sunday School classrooms and times with younger church and formed at bedsides. Something so familiar that it was carved into their hearts. Just in case they needed it. And so, the song came out.

This Little Light of Mine. I’m gonna let it shine. This little light of mine. I’m gonna let it shine.

Everybody sang. Everybody joined in.

Everywhere I go, I’m gonna let it shine.

Everybody knew the words. Everybody needed the words.

Out in the darkness, I’m going to let it shine. Oh, out in the darkness, I’m going to let it shine.

Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

Everybody knew the words, because they’d sung them a thousand times before.

Thanks be to God.