Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd Sept. 13, 2020
As some of us were planning the fall services, the theme of angels kept popping up. In the midst of fears and trepidation about opening up our church and schools, we need some words of hope brought to us on angelic wings. And so, we decided to follow the angels’ lead and see where they might take us.
Today’s scripture reading refers to the angel of God guiding the Hebrews as they fled from slavery in Egypt. The angel provided guidance with a pillar of cloud before them in the day and a pillar of fire by night. The angel also confused their pursuers by hiding the Hebrews with a cloud behind them, thus separating the two Israelite and Egyptian camps. Although I have read this passage many times, I don’t recall noticing that the angel brought both illumination and confusion.
First—what is an angel? Most of the scriptural references to angels in both the First and Second Testaments describe messengers of God in human form. But in this passage, the messenger of God appears through a manifestation of nature. God speaks to us in many forms, and nature is one of them. The Spirit may bring our attention to a double rainbow when we need reassurance. The Spirit may nudge us to notice a blossom falling when we need to release something or are grieving a loss. Last week, I watched the first episode of “Anne with an E”. After Marilla had sent Anne away, she looked at the twigs of apple blossoms Anne had picked and one of the blossoms fell. God helps us notice signs that might provide clarity and comfort when we are needing guidance.
This passage also suggests God confuses what we think is clear when we’re going a bit off course. In our times of stillness, we would be wise to listen not only for clarity, but also for confusion. If things seem a bit more muddled when we take time to listen for God’s wisdom, we may need to reconsider them.
In our passage from Exodus, God was clearly taking sides, guiding the Israelites out of slavery and confusing their Egyptian pursuers. Liberation theology suggests that God is always on the side of justice, moving hearts and hands to create more just ways especially for society’s marginalized. You couldn’t be more marginalized than slaves.
Today, Christians universally denounce the institution of slavery as evil, but it wasn’t always this way. The Southern Baptist Convention was formed in 1845 by those who split from the northern Baptists in the U.S. over the issue of slavery. The Southern Baptists used scripture to support slavery and require slaves to obey their masters. It wasn’t until 1995 that the Southern Baptists renounced their racist roots and apologized for their defense of slavery, segregation and white supremacy.
We Canadians need to know that slavery of both Black people and Indigenous people also existed in our country in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries. Slavery and racism are ancient, entwined evils that extend back millennia across different cultures and religions.
To better address racism, we need to learn the history of its roots in slavery. Our scripture helps us do this. There is a theme of liberation within the Bible, in both Testaments, from various oppressions including slavery, racism, sexism and classism. In these accounts of oppression, God is clearly on the side of the oppressed, lending voice and strength to them while confusing their oppressors.
But I am also disturbed by some of these accounts, such as the one we heard today. Does God really want the oppressors killed? Does God condone violence against those who do wrong? Miriam danced triumphantly as she celebrated with song and tambourine how God had thrown horse and rider into the sea to sink as stones to their watery graves.
Yes, God abhors slavery and helps to set the captives free, as Jesus recalls in his own missional statement for his ministry. But at what cost? I’m not the only one disturbed by this story. There is an ancient Hasidic tale that tries to find God’s wider compassion in this biblical passage. It takes us back to the angels. They were celebrating the Israelites’ escape from their captors, playing their harps, singing and dancing, when one of them stopped and pointed. “Look the Creator is crying!” The rest of the angels abruptly ended their celebration and they all approached God, asking, “Why are you weeping when the Israelites have been saved from certain death?” The Maker of the Universe replied, “I am weeping for the dead Egyptians washed up on the shore—somebody’s son, somebody’s husband, somebody’s father.”
There are times when I need God’s strength and guidance to stand up to issues of injustice. And there are other times, when I need God’s mercy and compassion when I realize that I’ve been the cause of injustice. There are times when I’ve made assumptions that are racist. There are times when I’ve spoken or acted in ways that have been harmful—even if I didn’t intend harm. These are the times when I’m so grateful that we all live God’s grace—both oppressor and oppressed—because most of us are both.
The part of this biblical story that most inspires me is the faith of Moses. He was leading his people away from Egypt, when he felt God nudging him to turn north, back to the northern edge of Egypt along the Mediterranean Sea. When the Egyptians saw this, they thought that the Israelites were both lost and trapped by the ocean border. The Egyptian chariots thundered towards the cowering people, but Moses stretched out his hand in faith in the midst of a hopeless situation. We are told that God caused a strong, easterly wind to blow and dry up an isthmus for a few hours that allowed the Israelites to escape. There have been scientific theses written about this, explaining how, in fact, it could have happened. But I am less interested in historic proof and more in the account of faith.
There may be impossible seas that lie before us that seem impenetrable. We may feel ourselves up against a wall with no way to escape. We may feel defeated by the interminable length of COVID that stymies plans and the gatherings of friends and family. We hear of the cost of social isolation and the overwhelming fear that some children, parents and seniors have.
When those seas of fear rage before us, let us recall the words of Moses, when he said to the people, “Don’t be afraid. Stand firm and see the deliverance that God will accomplish for you today…You have only to keep still.” Our faith tells us through biblical story after story that God will bring us through whatever lies before us. We often don’t know how and in these times, it might be best simply to be still before God and listen for the Spirit’s nigglings. Watch for signs of angelic guidance or confusion. God may be nudging us away from something.
Somehow, in some way, the seas will part before us. For those of you who are leaders in this congregation and in other places, let’s try our hardest to see these strange restrictions as opportunities for trying new things. Thomas Merton writes, “You do not need to know precisely what is happening or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and the challenges offered by the present moment and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”
When the seas of confusion rage around us, it is best not to fight them, but be still, observe and discern how we can use the energy of the confusion in a creative way. The Japanese principle of Aikido teaches us how to work with an opponent’s energy and force, instead of fighting against it. We will only tire ourselves out by resisting. And let us not give into the temptation to simply retreat. Being still does not mean giving up. Being still means being open and welcoming to whatever creative opportunity presents itself.
Our church porch seranades emerged spontaneously as an opportunity that our creative musicians were able to see. Inspired by them, may we pay attention to the subtle, angelic signs of God’s presence and guidance that are all around us. With courage of the heart, let us stretch out our hands in faith towards the seas of confusion. With God’s creative genius, the seas will part.