I keep promising that I am going to buy our Music Director Arthur a t-shirt that says, “Why do I always end up in the sermon?” That’s because Arthur and I frequently engage in theological conversations as we consider the hymn choices for each Sunday. This happened recently when, in planning for this Easter Vigil liturgy, Arthur informed me that he didn’t “get” the point of it. “Arthur,” I scolded, “It’s right there in the Prayer Book. ‘Let us hear the record of God’s saving deeds in history, how God saved the people in ages past; and let us pray that our God will bring each of us to the fullness of redemption.’” At this service, we listen to the history of God’s relationship with humanity in order to renew our own connection with the Almighty.
The Revised Common Lectionary offers us a choice of nine lessons to share at this service, but if we read all nine of them, we would probably literally welcome Easter morning every year. Instead, we rotate through a few of the readings, hearing stories that show different aspects of our relationship with God. There is, however, one tale that we are required to hear each year: the story of “Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea.”
So, why this one? According to scholars, it’s because “just as the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus is the central saving act in the [New Testament], so the crossing of the Red Sea is the main salvific event in the OT.” It is also, as we have found in our Lenten Bible study of Exodus, the shaping event of God’s covenant with the people. When I explained this to Arthur, he had one comment: “Bummer for the Egyptians though.” Well, yes – that is a problem: one of our most holy stories about God saving “God’s people” is a tale in which God slaughters the people of another nation – a passage that has been used to justify violence against “outsiders” for generations. The God in this story is an unforgiving and terrifying Destructor who seems unrelated to the loving God who took on our humanity to save us and forgave the sinners beside him even as he died.
We are not the only ones who have been troubled by this narrative. Benjamin Sparks tells us that, “There is an old Hasidic interpretation of this story... [which begins with] the Hebrew children…dancing… [while in heaven] God is weeping… [When asked by the angels why the Creator of the Universe is crying, God says… ‘I am weeping…for the dead Egyptians washed on the shore.’” This God is more familiar - powerful enough to destroy an entire people and yet compassionate enough to mourn them. This God’s actions are not about choosing one tribe over another; they are about restoring balance to creation. Human beings have perverted God’s desire for all people to live in harmony and equality, so God acts to end the enslavement and exploitation of the oppressed. This is not for the good of one tribe, but for all people and nations. Rejoicing for this victory is permitted, but we are also to remember that God sorrows over the suffering and death of any human being.
This dichotomy is hard for human minds to grasp because we insist on thinking of God as being as limited as we are, unable to truly love our enemies. We forget that our God is not, as C.S. Lewis put it, “a tame lion.” Even as God provides the ultimate proof of her love by fulfilling the promise of our salvation, he demonstrates how terrifying his power is. When the women who went to the tomb to prepare Jesus’s body for burial found it gone and the space occupied instead by two dazzling figures, they were, Luke tells us, so frightened that they lowered their faces to the dirt.
We should know by now that God is terrifying. He can cause the entire earth to tremble. She can destroy whole nations. But what God chooses to do is to seek relationship with creation, forgiving and recommitting to us again and again, and sacrificing not only human life, but God’s own divine being. God does this in covenant with all creation that we may be saved from the violence of human evil, moving out of the darkness of death into the glory of eternal light. AMEN.
The Episcopal Church, “Book of Common Prayer, 1979,” p. 288. Kevin A. Wilson, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Year C Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 331. O. Benjamin Sparks, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Year C Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 330.