The Myth by Which We Live, September 17, 2017
The Myth by Which we Live
There are many ways to approach this text from Exodus. Last week, we read the beginning of this story; today, it’s near the end. It is a foundational story for Israel. It’s as important for Jews as the crucifixion and resurrection are for Christians.
Let me set the context.
This story is a transition in the life of Israel as God’s people. Centuries after the fact, Israel remembers what God has done for them. It begins with the story of the Passover.
Now, Israel has finally escaped the slavery of Egypt. They have shaken the dust of slavery off their feet, and they are marching towards freedom. But Egypt’s king has changed his mind. He gathers his army, his chariots, his war horses, and he pursues these escaping slaves.
Israel finds itself now on the west bank of the Sea of Reeds (which is a better translation than “Red Sea”). In front of them, an impassable body of water. Behind them, Pharaoh’s army.
As we consider this story, there are a number of choices to be made.
We could focus on this story as Israel’s resurrection story. Israel moves from death to life. Death on one shore of the sea to life on the other shore.
On the west bank of the Sea of Reeds, Israel is a group of escaped slaves. The king of Egypt is bearing down on them in his war chariots, determined to wipe them out. They complain to Moses: “Why have you led us out here to die? It would have been better to stay in Egypt, even if we were slaves.”
In an act of ferocious trust in God, they cross through the sea on dry ground. Pharaoh tries to pursue them, and the water comes rushing back in to drown the Egyptian army. Israel watches and sings the song of triumph we read as our canticle this morning.
And now, here they are on the east side, the people of Yahweh.
That’s the reason early Christians used this story as an archetype of baptism. We move through the waters from death to life.
A story of resurrection. The people have moved from death to life.
We could focus on God’s power over the forces of nature and highlight the movement of sea. Most of us might remember the scene in Cecil B DeMille’s movie, The Ten Commandments. Towering walls of water stand firm as the Israelites pass through, and come crashing down over the Egyptian army.
Approaching the story this way, we would begin with creation itself. The Spirit of God hovered over the waters. We would continue with Jesus calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee. The story would culminate in the Book of Revelation, with its promise that “the sea was no more”. In this reading, the sea is an archetype of chaos. God’s victory over the sea is God’s victory over the forces of chaos.
Given all the weather catastrophes our poor, fragile world is dealing with right now, that’s a theme worth exploring. We are facing a threat in our world. Scientists call it climate change. I’m not a scientist, but I can read, and what reputable scientists are saying should give us pause. The planet is warming; the ice is melting; ocean temperatures are on the rise; plants and animals are moving from their traditional habitats because they can’t live there anymore. That’s what the scientists are saying.
A group of Christians in Cranbrook met last week in Rotary Park to pray for rain. Now I’ve got nothing against prayer. It’s a good thing. But these same people also deny climate change, and they are praying for God to rescue us from these wildfires in the same way as God rescued the Israelites at the seashore.
But honestly, God’s promise is not that God will forever save us from ourselves and our stupidity. Rather, God promises to stand with us in the midst of fire and hurricane, in the midst of joy and sorrow, in the midst of gladness and mourning. God will always entice us to move in the direction of unity and wholeness and reconciliation with one another and with all of creation.
The God we worship will not stop us from beating the world up. But the God we worship will forever hold before us the possibility that we do not need to continue our headlong rush to disaster. In subtle and not so subtle ways, God will prompt us to walk in a different way, to move in a different direction, to love more fully, to live more simply, to give more generously, to be reconciled more completely.
I believe that as we heed the warnings about climate change, we are in the process of being saved by God. God is working on us at this very moment to turn us toward the healing of the planet.
We could focus on the violence in this story. I did that last week in the story of the Passover. Today, Pharaoh’s whole army is drowned in the sea along with the horses, because “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart”. Last week, I suggested that God doesn’t kill some so that others might be free. God doesn’t engage in wholesale slaughter. God doesn’t take sides in this way.
Quite the reverse. In God’s economy, all are welcome. God’s love is for all people, not just for some.
I said all of that last week, so I won’t go any further with it.
Each of these choices is a sermon in itself, and so far, you’ve heard 3 sermons. Not bad for 10 minutes, eh? Here comes sermon #4.
This story of the crossing of the sea is a myth.
Now we have to be careful with that word, “myth”. People use it these days as a synonym for a falsehood. A myth is something that has no basis in fact. But that’s not what myth means.
Karen Armstrong reminds us that a myth is a “story about an event that—in some sense—may have happened once, but which also happens all the time.” A particular myth may or may not be factual, but it reveals a deep truth about humans. A myth is a true story larger than life which deals with themes that are larger than life.
For example, the creation stories in the Bible are myths. The world wasn’t really made in 6 days and a day of rest. The universe evolved over the course of 14 billion years, and it continues to evolve. But the creation myth says something profoundly true about God’s commitment to the world.
In the same way, this Exodus story is a myth in which God recreates God’s people. One of the truths in this story is that raw and naked power, such as that exercised by the Pharaoh, only leads to death. God’s way is the way of life and hope and renewal.
Reading the story this way helps us understand that the death of the Egyptian soldiers is not a punishment from God, but rather a natural consequence of being caught up in the way of death. This is what happens to people who rely on the sword. They will die the same way. Jesus said the same thing: “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.”
To put it in a more contemporary idiom, “What goes around comes around.”
This is a story about a victory at sea. But the victory is won not by arms, not by power, not by coercion. The victory is won through trust in God.
In some ways, to read this story as a myth is a more difficult reading. Remember Karen Armstrong—a myth may have happened once, and it happens all the time.
It’s hard to trust God when the sea is in front of us and the army is bearing down on us from behind. It’s tough to trust in the power of love when the power of hate seems so close. It’s difficult to trust in God when the forces of chaos threaten to overwhelm us. It’s challenging to hold on to the power of life when death is all around us.
The life of faith can be demanding — and yet, that’s the story of the gospel. That’s the story of life. That’s the story of God. That’s the myth by which we live.
Thanks be to God.
Rev. Dr. Yme Woensdregt
September 17, 2017 (15th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 24)
Exodus 14: 19–31 & 15: 1–11
Romans 14: 1–12
Matthew 18: 21–35