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United Church of Christ

533 Route 28, Harwich Port, MA 02646 | Phone: 508-432-1668

And the Waters Parted

Exodus 14: 5-30

And the Waters Parted

Sunday March 12, 2017

Rev. Dr. Susan Cartmell

Pilgrim Congregational Church, Harwich Port


This month we have started a sermon series on the Journeys of Faith. Since the time of Homer people have been telling stories about trips that changed their lives. Homer told about Odysseus, the King of Ithaca who took ten years to return home from the Trojan War and faced challenges that tested his wit and built his character all along the way.

In the 1600’s people thrilled to the story of an elderly gentleman from La Mancha in Spain who set out to live a chivalrous life. His adventures and mis-adventures on this journey with his wily and humble servant form the basis for the classic Dom Quixote, and for the musical The Man of La Mancha.

The idea of a life-changing journey inspires us to backpack through Europe in our youth or send children on an international exchange. The notion that trips can expand your world view and enlarge your perspective can inspire many of us to plan regular trips where we meet new people and expose ourselves to different terrain and culture. One of the places where we learn first about the fundamental power of the journey of faith in the story of Moses in our Bible. Throughout the season of Lent we will  examine Moses’ journey and break it down to analyze its features as an archetypal journey of faith. 

Last week we talked about the burning bush and how God called Moses. We remembered that Moses was curious and questioned God’s call. Eventually, Moses decided to accept God’s assignment and to face Pharaoh to ask that he allow his Hebrew slaves to go free. It was a bold request and no one thought it would be a slam dunk. What ruler would release his slaves in the middle of an expansive building project? Pharaoh was no fool. He turned Moses down emphatically, but at God’s urging Moses persisted. Moses asked Pharaoh nine times and every time Pharaoh refused. With each refusal, God sent a new plague. First the water in the rivers turned to blood, and next the country was overrun with an explosion of frog. Following that there was an infestation of lice, then flies, and then the livestock started succumbing to disease. With each refusal God responded with more torments for Egypt. In the sixth plague an epidemic of boils broke out among the populace. Then there were major hailstorms followed by an infestation of locusts.  But still Pharaoh was intractable, so God caused an eclipse of the sun that cast the country into darkness for three day. Finally when the Egyptian ruler still would not budge God caused the eldest son in each family to die. Even tyrants have their breaking point and for the Pharaoh it was losing his boy. In grief and despair he ordered Moses to leave, and his decision caught everyone by such surprise that the Hebrews had to grab children, pack in haste and collect their unleavened dough from the hearth.

Moses led the people, a large collection of ancient refugees not unlike the Syrians today who flee for their safety across several land masses. Moses journeyed from Egypt out to the Red Sea with several thousand Hebrew people in tow. (Now the number of Hebrew people is in dispute because the Bible lists 600,000 men which would indicate a group of over 2 million counting women and children. But no group of people that size could cross the Red Sea in one night, and such a population would undoubtedly leave remains in the wilderness if they lived there for 40 years. So scholars believe that the numbers have been inflated over time and it was probably a group of hundreds or thousands, not hundreds of thousands.) After they had left Egypt Pharaoh regretted his decision to release them and ordered his chariots to chase after them, to bring them back or make an example of them. Let’s look at what happened next and see what we can learn for the journeys of faith that we embark upon.

In the first place you can never be completely prepared for your journey.  When Moses left Ramses he had been ordered by Pharaoh to leave. He knew the route and it seemed reliable because caravans had been taking it for decades. He did everything he was told by God, and his people survived the Passover of the angel of death. All the Hebrew sons were spared. This trip was not an impulsive decision; he had been asking Pharaoh for months. Yet Moses could not anticipate the chariots or that he would be boxed in with the sea before him and the Egyptian army behind him. No one can know enough to see what really lies ahead on the journey of life.

            Since we cannot prepare for all things we need to be prepared for the fact that life will surprise us. A Roman statesman from the third century named Cato is quoted as saying – “He who hesitates is lost.” There are times in life when you need to decide whether to take action with some information or wait to prepare some more. If the Hebrews had known about the chariots they would never had left and never been free. There would be no Israel, no Bible, no David, on Jesus, and no church. If they had waited until they were sure everything was completely safe they would have remained slaves forever. 

            Bill Bryson is a writer with an ironic wit and sense of adventure. He wanted to take the trip of a lifetime- a trip that would challenge him mentally, physically and spiritually. So he decided to hike part of the Appalachian Trail and he wrote about his experience in a funny book entitled, Take a Walk in the Woods. He tells of discovering the breadth and beauty of nature, of experiencing time in a new way, and of the lure and profound fulfillment of sleeping out every night in the woods along this epic trail that winds down the Eastern part of our country. He was accompanied by a sidekick, a comic foil named Stephen Katz. Katz was out of shape, and he packed way too much stuff. In the movie version Robert Redfern plays Bryson and Nick Nolte his companion Stephen Katz. They learn that for this trip you need to travel light, to be nimble and resourceful. In the end Katz leaves many belongings along the trail.

            Every year the Jews celebrate the Passover and remember the way that God saved them so long ago. For eight days they eat matzos instead of bread. These unleavened crackers serve as a reminder each day of Passover that you cannot prepare for everything when you journey in faith. If you wait until you are completely prepared you will remain a slave to your fears and your need for complete control.

In the second place, the Bible says it is natural to want to turn around. When the Hebrews hear the chariots coming they are terrified and they have every right to be. They express their anger sarcastically and rail against Moses, “Weren’t there enough graves in Egypt? They  forget that they decided to go and blame Moses for bringing them out into the desert to die. It takes real fortitude in moments like this to stay the course.

            Moses learned that the urge to turn back is normal. The people doubted the wisdom of the journey again and again. When you start a journey of faith you won’t be normal if you don’t question it. When you do wonder why you left home the challenge is to gather the presence of mind to avoid panic. When you give birth you go through a long labor, or maybe a shorter labor that seems long. But you come to the place in the journey of giving birth where you are in the transition. That is the part of labor where you think you cannot go on. You wish there was some other way to have this child. Some people turn on their labor coach or the father of the child. It is not pretty, but the key in that moment when it all seems too much is to remember that these feelings are normal. They may even be a signal of success. Transition is the point in the labor just before the last stage.  

The Bible says that as they approached a large body of water they felt the rumbling wheels of the chariots approaching and panic spread throughout the people. Moses called on God for guidance. God said, “Stretch out your staff over the water. And the waters parted.”

Finally, the Bible says that God is ahead of you, leading you into the future. But you have to take a chance on God. When we read this story most of us assume that Moses put his hand out over the water and then the waters parted and he walked across on dry land leading the people behind him. There is some evidence in the Hebrew translation of this story that it did not happen that way. In the newest Contemporary English translation of the Bible when the people feel trapped at the edge of the sea and hear Pharaoh’s chariots barreling in the distance Moses turns to God to ask for help. God answers, “Why do you cry out to me. Tell the Israelites to get moving.” Then Moses stepped into the water and the sea parted. There is some linguistic evidence that God only parted the water after Moses had stepped into it. Maybe the tide shifted in the nick of time, or there were sandbars Moses could not see until he was out into the surf. Maybe the whole area was like Brewster at low tide. Maybe the tides shifted quickly like they do on that sandbar north of the Cape. Maybe the sand was passable for people but impassable for chariots. especially low that day. It would not make this less of a miracle if there were some natural explanation.

But the key to this interpretation is the notion that Moses took initiative without knowing what would happen. He did not second-guess this mission. He did not waste any energy looking back. He was determined to persevere until he found a way forward. That kind of determination always sets the stage for life’s miracles in life.

Popular psychologist Brene Brown says that once you figure out where you want to go on your journey of faith, set your sails for this destination, then you plan your trip and pray about it. Something in you will connect with energy in the universe that cannot resist a determined person. Margaret Mead said the same thing in a different way- “Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”

But you cannot hedge your bets. You cannot worry about the past and plan for the future all at once. You cannot be deterred when all the Hebrews you know shout their bad advice or second guess your decisions. You set the stage for miracles when you persevere.

There are many examples of parting waters. I found one in People Magazine this week (March 13, 2017) A couple of weeks ago Viola Davis won an Oscar for her role in “Fences”, the first African American woman to be nominated three times. She was the granddaughter of a slave and a sharecropper the fifth of six children in a family so poor she has only one childhood picture. She stole food sometimes from garbage and used to tie rags around her neck at night to keep the rats from biting her. But she was determined and through a federal program called Upward Bound she got a chance to go to college. After college she earned a spot at Julliard in New York City. But her career did not take off right away and did not skyrocket until she was 40. With her background it is not surprising to hear her say, “My confidence took time …It took many years of getting knocked down and getting back up to finally say ‘Okay, I think I’m pretty tough. I got this.’” Six years ago she and her husband adopted a little girl called Genesis. Her stature is undisputed today as an actor, but her life is a story of waters parting over and over.

 You define your journey on those days when you tell God I am not turning back. I will not be a slave – a slave to poverty or disappointment, or fear of failure. I will not hide my light under a bushel. I will not wallow in disappointment.  I will not be sidelined. I will not fear the future. I will define the future, and head into it with a sense of adventure. I need these waters to part and part now. You say that to God and see what happens. I guarantee you will be surprised, for as you take those tentative and fearless steps your will change the world and the world will change you. 

Posted: Sunday March 12, 2017