Last week, we named a few of issues facing our society: Catastrophic climate change. Corporate and political corruption. Imminent federal funding of the Adani coal mine. Macho posturing between the United States and North Korea. The plebiscite, and the vile rhetoric being unleashed against LGBTQI people. Australia’s abuse of people seeking asylum, and the suffering of the men trapped on Manus Island. Our nation’s history of genocide, and continuing discrimination against First Peoples. The exploitation of those who make many of our consumer goods. As the list grew, it became overwhelmingly obvious that only a fool would claim that life is good. These are desperate times in which violence is a deep, ever-present, and continuing reality, which affects every person, and all life, on earth.
No doubt the Hebrew slaves who made bricks under the hot sun in Egypt felt the same way. They lived under a violent Pharaoh, whose racist rhetoric had turned many Egyptians against them. He had placed harsh taskmasters over them; he had increased their daily workload to impossible levels; and he had ordered that their babies be killed. After repeated warnings from God, and ten plagues of increasing severity, Pharaoh had finally allowed the Israelites to go free. But then he changed his mind, and sent his elite special forces to hunt them down. And so the Israelites now find themselves trapped between the Egyptian army and the Red Sea.
Is it curtains for Israel? There is nowhere to go, and the forces of death are all around. Or is something new about to happen?
The clues to newness are in the ways the text echoes Genesis. We are told that God is in a pillar of cloud, which brings light to the darkness; then the spirit, or wind, or ruach, of God hovers over the waters and separates them from the dry land. This new creation opens up a path for God’s people to take, together. It is the path from slavery to freedom; from trust in empire to trust in God.
It is a new era—and it is also the end of the old. For, when the armoured vehicles follow, they become bogged. The waves come crashing back, and all the elite soldiers and all the engines of war are destroyed. And however uncomfortable we may feel in the face of Pharaoh’s hardened heart and the bodies of the soldiers washed up on the seashore, we must notice two things.
First, we must notice that chariots are particularly and repeatedly named. Chariots are the ultimate symbol of imperial power and military violence; yet it is the chariots which become bogged in the seabed, and which lead to the army’s destruction. In other words, it is imperial power and military violence which are destroyed.
Second, we must notice that this does not happen through military force. Nobody takes up a sword; nobody fights on God’s behalf. Throughout this story, the Israelites and the Egyptians are kept apart from each other by God. It is only when the Egyptian army pursues the Israelites across the seabed in heavy armoured vehicles that they become trapped. Only then did this violent army of a violent nation suffer violence: and it was the violence of the traditional symbol of chaos: the violence of the sea.
Pharaoh presided over an economy based on slavery, exploitation, oppression, corporal punishment, even genocide. His army ensured the people’s obedience and submission, and brutally punished those who strayed. But this story shows what happens to such a system: In God’s new creation, it is all washed away.
How does this relate to us? Well, we are people living in a postcolonial society. Our history is one of genocide; our lives are shaped by the patriarchy; our public institutions are blighted by government collusion in corporate greed. Our economy of extraction and consumption has blasted good earth and poisoned rivers; our futures are overshadowed by catastrophic climate change. These are desperate times in which violence is a deep, ever-present, and continuing reality, which affects every person, and all life, on earth. Only a fool would claim that life is good.
But the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God: and God claims that life is good. And again and again, God calls out a new creation: a creation in which military power and imperial violence are washed away; in which corporate greed and political corruption and patriarchal domination and nuclear posturing are all undone when the foolish and the weak and the lowly of this world walk into God’s future, together.
Throughout history, in the midst of great suffering and oppression, when change seems impossible and all hope is lost, dry paths emerge. The last century saw the collapse of colonialism in India, the emergence of the American Civil Rights movement, an end to apartheid in South Africa, an end to the civil war in Liberia, and so much else: and each of these new creations occurred when people with limited rights and no power—people largely held in contempt—were gathered up, and began walking into God’s freedom. Dry paths.
And here and now, dry paths are emerging in this region. Whether it’s more sustainable ways to shop, eat, and live; whether it’s activism on behalf of people seeking asylum; or whether it’s other things, dry paths are all around us. I want to focus on one.
Last week, Warrnambool City Council raised a rainbow flag. Every week, Warrnambool College is a Safe School. And LGBTQI people are talking about their history of leaving this region, and how things are beginning to change: how they are beginning to feel that they can make a home here. But even now, there is almost nowhere in this region that they can freely participate in the life of the church. Meanwhile, some families with transgender teens have been referred to us, but we have made no great move in their direction. However, we do have a draft statement which explicitly welcomes LGBTQI people; a statement which, with its message of love and acceptance, could be very good news indeed to people who have traditionally been excluded from churches and other social institutions.
This statement could be sent as a letter to those families as a powerful invitation to walk with us. It could push us to engage with and worship with people who are not like all of us. It could go on our website as a witness to the one who was judged for welcoming sinners and outcasts, and who nevertheless continued to seek out the marginalized, and who told them that they were beloved by God. The statement could do all of these things and more: but for it to do this work, we would need to issue it together.
So, is this a new creation we will participate in? Towering waves of judgement are raised up on the left and the right. We might be persecuted by religious conservatives and internet trolls; we might be dismissed as marginal and foolish; we might feel anxious and fearful about the potential such a statement has to change our congregation. Yet in the face of these and other forces which push us to the safety of silence and the ways we have known, the question remains: Is this a dry path we are willing to take? Is it the path to justice and freedom? Where does the Spirit beckon us now? Let’s talk. Ω
(The rest of the time was spent in a congregational discussion – to be continued!)
A reflection on Exodus 14:19-31 by Alison Sampson, Sanctuary, 17 September 2017 (AP19).