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Let Us Alone and Let Us Serve
Reverend Matt Gaventa
September 24, 2017
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.
So here it is. This is the big moment. We have been preaching through Exodus for weeks and no self-respecting Exodus sermon series skips over the Parting of the Red Sea, so here we are. I haven’t actually done this, but I’m pretty sure that if you walked around Austin asking folks what they knew about the book of Exodus, Family Feud-style, the most popular answer would far and away be the Parting of the Red Sea. This is one of those capstone pieces, it’s all spectacle and special effects. Actually this sequence is the inspiration for some of the first landmark special effects usage in Hollywood history, when Cecil B. Demille created literally thousands of gallons worth of Jell-O in order to show the parted sea in his 1923 version of The Ten Commandments. Which is not the one with Charlton Heston standing on the rocky outcrop with the staff held high and the water pulling away from itself but it just goes to show that you don’t make a movie of the 10 Commandments without this scene. This is the scene everybody wants to see.
And it’s actually the first of three major special effects sequences that will unfold over the next three weeks. Today, we’ve got the parting of the Red Sea; next week, manna falling from heaven; and the week after that, to close out the trilogy, Moses striking the rock and water pouring forth. The lynchpin stories of the Exodus — of Israel escaping from slavery in Egypt and entering into the wilderness — these stories are chock-full of miracles, supernatural set-pieces that even the lectionary makes sure we don’t forget. But special effects on their own don’t make the movie. There are lots of movies out there with amazing special effects and no kinds of character work and it’s not a satisfying combination and I should know because I saw the first Transformers movie in the theatre and I survived so that I could testify to you, now, today. Special effects will only get you so far. At some point, you have to have characters. You have to have characters and the choices they make. And Exodus has its fair share of characters making their fair share of choices. Let’s talk about Israel. And let’s talk about Moses.
First, Israel. The people of Israel are not well. Running away from slavery has not gone well so far. They are walking across the desert, but they didn’t get much of a head-start, and Pharaoh’s army is on horseback, and Pharaoh’s catching up, and Israel is not happy. And when Israel gets unhappy in Exodus they get super-sarcastic, like the disaffected teenager from some bad family sitcom, and they direct it all to Moses. “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? 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.” Serving Pharaoh is all Israel can remember, and it wasn’t great, but at least when they were serving Israel nobody made them go on death-marches through the desert without enough food or water and nobody ever threatened to pour the Red Sea down on top of them. It may come off like sarcasm but in many ways this is not an unreasonable position; one could make the argument that Israel has a thoroughly pragmatic understanding of how the world really works.
Moses, though. Moses just wants to be free; all Moses talks about is being free; free from slavery; free from Pharaoh; free from Egypt; just free. Moses talks like a guy who just wants to get out of Dodge and see the world. Moses talks like a guy who needs to shake the dust of that town off his feet and hit the road. But then when the action starts, all Moses does is take directions. That’s the way it’s always been. God said, “Go talk to Pharaoh,” and Moses went to talk to Pharaoh.” God said, “Stretch your hand out over the sea,” so Moses stretched his hand out over the sea. And this will continue time and again; Moses is very much the hero of the Exodus story but he doesn’t show a lot of independent initiative; it’s like he’s traded one boss for another; for a guy who talks so much about freedom, he sure likes taking directions. And then of course it works; the sea parts, the Israelites go through, the Egyptian army drowns. And it says that “the people feared the Lord and believed in his servant, Moses.”
That’s the irony of this text. That the one guy who talks all day about freedom is the one guy who stays a servant the whole time. But I get it. Freedom can be a kind of slippery thing. When I myself was a disaffected teenager, all I wanted was to be free. To go where I wanted to go and be who I wanted to be and escape from the unjust dominion of my parents’ household (who are very decent and good parents and do not deserve to be treated this way in a sermon illustration). And of course like so many who yearn for teenage freedom, all that meant to me was that I wanted a car. A car meant that I could get out. A car meant that I could be on my own, accountable to nobody, subordinate to nobody. And finally when I was 17 I got my license — New Jersey makes you wait for it — and of course it is every bit as spectacular a feeling as it was built up to be, freedom itself, hot off the laminating press and pocket-sized. And I started sharing my mother’s Toyota station wagon, which is not exactly the perfect ideal of teenage freedom but it was better than nothing. So I could go. And I was free.
The problem was, of course, that freedom requires gas. And gas was expensive. I mean, not 2017 expensive, but still. I didn’t have any money, so everything was expensive. And so I did what you do when you’re 17 and need gas money: I got a job. A bit of a financial upgrade from babysitting, but not the most glamorous employment — I got a job doing data entry for some company that asked college applicants to evaluate the college application process and then it packaged those results and sold them back to colleges, and it really meant that after school I drove to this office park and I sat at a desk and entered form results into a database for as many hours as I could take. There were always more forms. And there were always more hours. And I needed gas. And look, I had a pretty privileged childhood. As complaints go, mine is laughable. But that was not obvious to me when I was trapped in a cubicle after school every day with a window view of the car that I couldn’t afford to drive unless I sat there in that cubicle which of course I had to pay for the gas for the privilege of driving to in the first place and I’m now having a long conversation with myself about whether this is really the freedom that I signed up for.
All of which is to say: I’m not sure Moses quite gets the freedom that he signs up for, either. At the end of the day, he still serves the Lord. And to be sure, this text is especially sacred for theologians of political revolution and social inversion; it’s a crucial part of the story we tell and the story we believe about God who works to free people from bondage and God who works to liberate the captives and God who works to bring down the tyrants. Israel was in slavery and God sets them free and surely God is even as we speak working to free so many even today from the powers of greed and corruption and yet. This is not a story about people who go free. Pharaoh lets these people go but God will not let these people go, and a few chapters from now they’re going to stand at the base of Mount Sinai and sign the dotted line of the covenant between God and them and whether nor they read all the terms and conditions that covenant says we agree to serve the Lord. This is a story about people who serve God. This is a story about people who belong to God. And you can’t belong to God and ever be entirely free. As the great theologian Bob Dylan once said, you gotta serve somebody.
You gotta serve somebody. Israel’s protest cry — “let us alone and let us serve!” — it sounds like such an obvious target, such an easy take-down, like God of course will not let you alone and God of course will set you free. But it’s not quite that obvious. You gotta serve somebody. Moses stares into the moment, the Egyptian army closing in at his back, the waters closing in on his front, and he makes his choice. You gotta serve somebody. And it’s the choice that Israel keeps having to make. A generation later, Joshua will gather all of the tribes of Israel and ask them the same: “Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living.” Choose this day whom you will serve. The gods of Pharaoh. The gods of slavery. The gods that held your people in chains. The gods that put your children to the sword. The gods of violence and despair. The gods of corruption and greed. The gods of death. Or the God of covenant. The God of promise. The God of liberation. The God of redemption. The God who makes a way through the waters and brings manna in the wilderness. Choose this day whom you will serve. Choose this day to whom you will kneel. “As for me and my house,” Joshua says. “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
You gotta serve somebody. So serve the one who brought you through the water. Serve the one who redeemed you. Clifton Black describes this Biblical redemption by remembering the old-fashioned recycling centers that his parents would take him to as a kid, the kind where you would bring back your aluminum cans and your glass bottles so they could be exactly reused, the Redemption Centers. And now in some states you can still do this and get 5 cents back on your bottles, and so I guess if you bring enough, you get a real cash payout, but in Black’s childhood the redemption center didn’t pay out in cash, it paid out in prizes. So you’d show up with a backseat full of milk bottles and Dr Pepper bottles and you’d bring them all to the counter and behind the counter in these locked glass cabinets, it would look like the booth at some county fair, all these novelty toys and cheap plastic one-offs and oversized stuffed animals. And what he wanted, of course, more than anything, what he wanted was the large teddy bear hanging in the corner, behind its own private lock and key, you know, the one as big as he was, the piece de resistance, the best one on the lot. And you know as well as I do that that teddy bear cost a whole truckload of glass bottles. So he saved up.
Week in, week out, every Saturday, off to the redemption center with that week’s load of cans and bottles, saving up the little tickets they gave as currency, steadily and slowly building towards that moment where you can use the redemption center for its purpose, which is of course liberating that poor teddy bear from its cage, redeeming it now and henceforth, and finally, in accordance with all God’s promises, finally the day came when young Clifton Black had all the tickets he needed — one can only imagine how much Dr Pepper went into pulling off this act of theological intervention — finally he’s got all the tickets he needs and the man behind the counter goes and unlocks that cage and pulls that bear out and hands it to our young hero, but of course here’s the thing. It’s not like the bear goes free. For one, of course, it’s a teddy bear, so it’s not like it could walk off on its own even if we wanted it to. But more to the point. Having worked for so long and so hard to win its freedom. Clifton was never going to let that bear go. He takes it in his arms and clutches it tight. He puts it in the car and clutches it tight. He puts it in the car and buckles the seatbelt around it just in case and rolls up the window just in case and locks the door just in case because “I have redeemed you; you are mine,” says the Lord.
That’s all this story is. Forget the special effects and the blockbuster moments. It’s just us. It’s just you and me. It’s just characters, and the choices we make, the choices we make this day and every day. There are always gods of slavery and death. There are always gods of oppression and violence. There are always gods tempting us with comfort more familiar than the wilderness. The gods of pharaoh have never been in short supply and today is no exception. But as for me and my house. As for those of us in this house. May we have the courage to serve the Lord. May we have the courage to serve the one to whom we belong. To serve the God of peace. To serve the God of justice. To serve the God of mercy. To serve the God of the captives. To serve the God of the margins. To serve the God of the forgotten. To choose the path that God has made, even though it goes through the wilderness waters. To choose the path through the wilderness waters precisely because God has made it. And may the Lord bless us and keep us. And may the Lord wrap arms tightly around us and clutch us tight. And may the Lord never let us go, all the days of our lives. Amen.