Leaving Pharaoh Behind When You Don’t Have a GPS: Sermon for March 19, 2017

Growing up I wanted one thing perhaps more than all others. I wished for it, hoped for it, prayed for it, and it never came. When I got to college I would occasionally catch glimpses of it, but it wouldn’t last long. And when I thought about my future, I would dream of living in a place where I could see it all the time.

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It snows a lot where I live. Happy spring!

What was it I was looking for? Snow. I was looking outside during the blizzard this week and I thought, “Hey, I got my wish!”

I know that this probably sounds funny to those of you who grew up in New England, but down South we have very little snow. And in Florida, where I spent most of my time growing up, we had none. There were no seasons. Every day was the same.

When I first decided to move to New England about ten years ago I didn’t do so for snow. I did it because it was the right choice for me, and it meant that I could do ministry in a region where I could be myself. But I must say that the snow was a nice perk. I couldn’t wait for changing seasons.

And then one day my first year, I had to stop for gas in the middle of the day. I got out of the car, and it was cold and snowy and wet. The wind cut through me like a knife. I had never experienced cold like that, or even thought it was possible. And I stood there pumping gas and shivering and thinking to myself, “Why in the world did I ever leave the South?”

So, in some small way, I can sympathize with the people in today’s Bible passage. They had a much more compelling reason to leave home, though. These are the Israelites who after generations of living in slavery in Egypt, after years of back-breaking work, had finally been able to leave. They had followed Moses out across the Red Sea and they had entered the wilderness, looking for the Promised Land.

And, as you know, this didn’t go exactly according to plan. The people who had left Egypt probably thought that Moses had a map that would take them where they needed to go, and they would be there in no time. What they didn’t expect is that they would be wandering, and wandering.

When it became clear that they weren’t getting anywhere anytime soon, people started to look at Moses and wonder if he knew what he was doing. He had told them God was leading him, but they weren’t so sure about that. And on top of that, they were getting thirsty. They didn’t have any water to drink.

And so they went to Moses and said to him, “Hey, why did you make us leave Egypt? Just to kill us?” Because back home in Egypt they may not have been free, but at least they had water.

And so it’s understandable that in this moment, so far away from the only home they’ve ever known, away from food and water, away from a Promised Land that they’re not sure even exists, and that they’re really not sure Moses knows how to find, they start to wonder why they ever left Egypt in the first place.

Moving from one region of the country and leaving a captor in search of freedom are two very different things. I’m not trying to compare them. But I do know what it’s like to make a change in your life, to run into obstacles, and then to wonder whether maybe things hadn’t been so bad back where you came from.

The fix for my problem was simple. I bought a thicker jacket and after a while I learned to really love the change of seasons here. And I know that moving north opened up a world of opportunities for me that wouldn’t have been available at that time in the South.

But for the Israelites it wasn’t so easy. They really thought that this change they had made might kill them. Yes, being Pharaoh’s captives had been terrible, and no they hadn’t liked it, but at least back in Egypt they didn’t have to worry about dying of dehydration. At least back there they knew what to expect.

I get that. I think we all have our own Egypts, and our own Pharaohs. We all have times and places in our lives where things aren’t ideal, but at least we know what to expect. We might not like it much, but captivity is somehow less scary than the wildness of freedom.

But here’s the catch: we all have our own promised lands too. They’re there waiting for us. But in order to get there we have to let go of what is holding us back. We have to tell our Pharaohs that we are leaving. And we have to head out in the wilderness and look for a place that no GPS can find for us.

And sometimes, that takes a long time, and we have to cut our own trail to get there.

I’ve talked before about how in my 20’s I wrestled with my drinking, and eventually got sober. I don’t tell this story here to draw attention to myself, but I’m sharing it, first, because I believe it’s nothing to be ashamed of and it’s important to break stigmas around addiction. And I also tell it because I know what it’s like to let a personal Pharaoh keep you in captivity, and away from the Promised Land.

Before I finally got sober, and I’ve been sober for a double-digit number of years now, I got really comfortable living in Egypt. And I started to be way too loyal to a Pharaoh who had no loyalty to me.

When I finally did get sober, I expected everything to be better automatically. I thought, “I’ll be in the promised land in no time.” But here’s the thing: the first two years I was sober were probably the worst two years of my life.

photoSeriously, if you told me I had to go back and relive any period of my life, I’d probably go back to my most awkward middle school years before I went back to those first two years. Everything seemed to go wrong. Nothing turned out the way I planned. Every day was a struggle. I was out there in the wilderness saying, “You know, at least back in Egypt I wasn’t dying of thirst.”

In retrospect, those years probably seemed so bad because for the first time in a long time I was being honest with myself, and I was seeing the world around me honestly too. I was seeing what I hadn’t seen for a long time. And so I kept moving forward, cutting a new path. And year three was pretty good. And year four was even better. And year five was amazing. And it’s been pretty amazing ever since.

But that promised land didn’t come easy.

I think it’s like that for a lot of people who have to make hard changes. Recently I was reading about people who leave abusive partners. Do you know on average how many times it takes someone to leave an abusive relationship and not go back? One? Two? Three? Four?

On average it’s seven times. Seven. And that’s no judgment on the person who is leaving. It is incredibly hard to walk away from someone who says they care about you, no matter how much they hurt you. It’s even harder when you have to walk away with little money or resources. Leaving that behind is as hard as leaving Pharaoh. Harder even, because at least Pharaoh never told the Israelites he loved them.

And those are just a couple examples of the Pharaohs who want to hold us back in captivity, and keep us from the promised land.

Chances are, there has been a Pharaoh in your life too. Maybe there’s one there now. Maybe there is something holding you back from the place that God is calling you to. And maybe you know there is something better out there, but the wilderness you’ll have to cross feels so big and forbidding. Maybe you’re afraid to leave what you know in order to become what you know you are meant to be.

You’re not the first, and you won’t be the last. And the good news is that while it may not be easy, you will not go alone, and you will not go without God.

When the people started to yell at Moses that he was going to kill them all, he went to God. And he said, “look God, these people are ready to kill me. I need help.” And God told Moses to strike a rock with his staff, and that water would then pour out.

Moses did that, and it did, and the people drank. And they were strengthened enough that they could keep on walking, keep on searching for the promised land.

If you are in the wilderness, if you are breaking free from Pharaoh, God is walking this journey with you. And if you need it, God will give you living water, the kind that will see you through to the end. And on those days when you might look back, choose instead to look forward. Because what kept you in captivity is never better than the journey that can take you home. Amen?

Safely through the Waters: A Baptismal Sermon for September 21, 2014

Exodus 14:19-31
14:19 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.

14:20 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.

14:21 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.

14:22 The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.

14:23 The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers.

14:24 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.

14:25 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.”

14:26 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.”

14:27 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.

14:28 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.

14:29 But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.

14:30 Thus the LORD saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore.

14:31 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.

How many of you have ever seen the movie “The Ten Commandments”? The one with Charlton Heston? It has been years since I have seen it, but I watched a short piece of it this week in order to prepare for this sermon, so if you haven’t seen it or it’s been a long time, don’t worry…I’ll remind you.

Charlton Heston, Moses, is leading the people out of Egypt and to the promised land. And over the last few weeks we’ve heard some of this same story from Exodus. Moses speaks to the Burning Bush, Moses goes and tells Pharaoh “let my people go”, the plagues come, Pharaoh reluctantly agrees, and Moses gets the people ready to move. And so they start on their journey. But they don’t get very far before Pharaoh changes his mind. And Pharaoh and his army take off after Moses and the Israelites.

Finally they all find themselves on the shore of the Red Sea. And water is in front of them, and Pharaoh and his army are behind them, and things look bad. A man yells out to Moses, “Why did you bring us out here to die in the wilderness? Just to drown in the sea?”

How it probably didn't happen...

How it probably didn’t happen…

Moses steps up and yells, “The Lord of hosts will do battle for us!” And he turns and stretches out his arms and shouts, “Behold God’s mighty hand!” And suddenly there are these really bad 1950’s special effects and the waters peel back on both sides and Moses and the people can see clear across to the other shore. They all look amazed and start shouting “it’s a miracle” and they run through the waters before they close back up again and save them from Pharaoh’s army.

So, that’s the way it happens in the movie. But I’ve always believed that the book is better than the movie. And I think a big part of why books are better than the movies is that they go deeper, they’re more complex, and they tell the story a whole lot better.

The Bible is no exception. The passage we read today from Exodus tells us about a people who are hopeful enough to start out on a journey, but realistic enough to be scared. They have left behind all the knew, which wasn’t good, but was a whole lot better than this new reality where they are in the wilderness and facing certain death. So it’s understandable that they were starting to wonder why they ever followed this Moses guy anyway.

I’m sure that if I were there, I’d be doubting all of this too. And I’d be wondering whether it might be better to give up hope and to just go back to what I’d always known. Because hope can be dangerous sometimes. It can put us in situations we never dreamed of, and it can make us wonder why we ever dared to think we could do something new.

That’s what was happening that day as they stood on the banks of the water. The loss of hope, the triumph of doubt, the fear. They were all there.

In the movie version, that all only lasts a few seconds. Moses turns around and parts the waters and it is so breathtakingly awesome that doubt vanishes just like that. And the people crossed over. And they knew, for at least a little while anyway, that God was with them. How could they doubt after seeing something like that?

But have you ever wondered whether that was how it really happened?

Rabbis have a tradition of Scripture study called “Midrash”. It’s a way of taking a particular story from the Biblical text and thinking about and wondering over the meaning, including those things that are left unspoken. And there’s this wonderful tradition about this text which, in my mind at least, is ten times better than the movie.

In this interpretation, there is a man who is mentioned in the Book of Exodus who is named “Nahshon”. And when Moses calls on God to part the Red Sea, as this version of the story goes, it doesn’t automatically part. Instead, everyone stands there wondering why nothing is happening. But then, Nahshon steps out into the water. First one step. Then another. The water gets up to his ankles, up to his knees, up to his hips and shoulders. And finally, when it is up to his nose, the water finally parts.

I like that telling of the story. Because I believe that God could have parted those waters in one fell swoop, and that the Israelites could have seen the shore and known that they were going to be safe from the get go. But I believe that sometimes God asks us to show a little bit of faith, and a little bit of commitment.

Sometimes God wants us to be a Nahshon and so God lets us get nose-deep in the waters. And that’s not because God is toying with us, or being sadistic. That’s because God is preparing us for something better. God is using our faith and our hope to shape us, and to teach us that our actions, our responses, matter too.

The name “Naschon” is sometimes used to mean “an initiator”. That’s what he did that day. He took the initiative and started the crossing. And there are some who push this text even further and say that even after he got nose-deep, and even after the sea started to part, it was a gradual process. The people took one step, and a little more of the sea parted. And then another, and it parted more. And another, and another, trusting that if they just took the next right step, God would show them the next place after that. And eventually, God would lead them to dry ground.

When you think about it, that’s what the journey of faith is like. We don’t get to see the end. We don’t get to see dry land on our first step. But sometimes we get to see just enough to see the next right step. And we step out in faith believing that God won’t leave us stranded, and that the waters will not overpower us. We step out believing that God will make a way.

Today in worship we are baptizing a child we know. And this church knows her story, and her parents have given me permission to say a little about it here today.

On the day this child was born, the parents she would come to know weren’t there. Neither were her brothers and sisters. She had not yet met this family. But God was there. And God was with her in the deep waters, carrying her safely towards the shore.

One day when she was 16 months old that child wound up here in Exeter, at a new home, and everyone thought it would only be for a little while. This was a foster care placement, and they believed that one day it would be time to bless her on the rest of her journey and send her onward.

They took that first step, not just her foster parents, but the whole family together, to welcome a child into their home and to love her. But step by step, day by day, it became clear what God was calling them to do next. And when it became clear that this child wasn’t going anywhere, they took that next step out in faith too. And what God showed us once through Moses, another adoptee, God is showing us now through her. God parted the waters, and God made a way.

And so, today her parents bring their daughter, and her brothers and sisters bring their sister, to the water. They are bringing her to the font. And today as a congregation we baptize her.
And in baptism this is what we are saying: this child belongs to God, and she has all the days of her life. And in baptism she is entrusted to her family, and to all of us now, to help her to learn how to step out in faith until she can do it for herself.

We are going to teach her how to be a Naschon. We are going to teach her how to be an initiator. We are going to teach her how to turn to God even when hope seems foolish, and to trust that the same God who brought her family together, will continue to carry her through the waters. We are going to teach her to step out in faith. And she is going to teach us too.

And so in the waters of baptism today we are responding to what God has already initiated, and we are wading in, and saying we will walk with her on this journey. And so now, let’s gather at the edge of the water. And let’s wade in together. Because I truly believe that if we make a start, God will make a way. Moses and Naschon and and this beloved child we baptize today have taught us that much. Amen.