September 14, 2014: Exodus 14:19-31

September 14, 2014

When the water is up to your nose…

Year A, Pentecost 14                                    


            I have to admit that getting ready for this Kick-off Sunday made me a little anxious.  It felt like some sort of unveiling, but there is nothing new that we were actually unveiling.  I’m old news at this point as I have been at John’s for 11 months.  I keep telling people that I am looking forward to the one year mark, that time when I have been through everything once.  That means I will have seen Christmas at St. John’s before experiencing it. I will have walked through the Palm Sunday procession before having to lead it.  Leading a service that you have never experienced when everyone else knows exactly what to expect is well….kind of terrifying. 

In the last year, I have found myself identifying a little with Moses, except without the superpowers.  Moses was a leader, but he was not really sure where he was going.  It was all very new for him.  Of course Moses had some things on his side:  a direct connection to God and some pretty astounding miracles. 

We usually associate miracles with Jesus, but there were plenty or miracles in the Old Testament as well.  There are a lot of different definitions of miracles.  At one point, I looked it up on the internet and found one from the skeptics dictionary.  The skeptics dictionary defined a miracle as “a transgression of a law of nature by a particular decision of the Deity…”[1]  While that describes some miracles, it is certainly not all inclusive.  Miracles are so much more than transgressions of the laws of nature. Each one of us would probably define a miracle in a different way, but most would say it is a time when God intervenes directly in our lives. 

            Consider the parting of the Red Sea. Would that fit into the skeptics definition? We have all seen the dramatic depictions of this event in the movies.  There is usually a man with a long white beard that is being whipped around by the wind.  Suddenly a tunnel is created in the water and the Hebrew people walk through without a second thought.  This depiction would definitely fit the skeptic’s definition.  But if you look at the text itself (and not the Hollywood rendition), you might see something slightly different.  “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.  The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.”  What is interesting about this is that instead of a violation of the laws of nature, it would seem as though nature is working with God.

In fact, God is using many resources to accomplish this miracle.  First, he asks Moses to stretch out his hand over the sea.  Then he uses the wind to separate the water. He uses both a human agent and a force of nature.  Couldn’t God have parted the sea without Moses stretching his hand out? Did God really need wind? If we really believe that God is an all powerful God, then of course he could separate water without any wind and without any human assistance.  Yet it would seem that God is not working alone in this instance, that he wants it to be a joint effort.

You will find that is true of many miracles in the Bible. In the feeding of the 5,000 a boy brings forward five loaves and two fish, which is what Jesus multiplies. In the healing miracles, people had to take the initiative to request the healing. Most of the time, they had to find the courage to approach Jesus. It is easy to think that miracles are something that just come to us, that all we have to do is sit back and wait.  However, most of the time, we need to work with God. 

The Jewish people have volumes and volumes of commentary on the Hebrew Scriptures. They refer to this commentary as the midrash.  Sometimes the midrash will analyze the scripture. Sometimes it fills in perceived gaps to give a more complete picture. The midrash provides some fascinating insight into the Exodus story, which is one of the most important stories of the Jewish people. One particularly insightful comment focused on the line, “The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.”  From a careful study of the Hebrew, which is what the midrash is working with, the writers concluded that the Hebrew people entered the sea before it was actually parted.  The water did not part until they were so far in, it had reached their noses.[2]  In other words, God’s miracle required human initiative.  They had to take the first step. They had to believe that God would not let them drown.

If we consider this depiction of the story, then I imagine Moses standing on the side with his hand over the sea while the people walked through.  While he was technically leading them, they were the ones who were walking out in front.  This reminds me a lot of my experience at St. John’s.  I am the rector, which apparently makes me the leader.  But for much of the time, I have found myself standing to the side to see how it all works.  After Oct. 13th, I will have been here one year and will have at least some experience on how things work here, but there will still be times when I have to stand aside while you all wade into the water.  We are all on this journey together. There will be times when we will feel incredibly lost and there will be times when God’s guidance is so clear it is like a pillar of light in the night sky.

But most of the time, it will be something in between.  We will have a general idea where we are going, but we might lack the energy or the confidence to keep going.  Maybe we will be a little worried that the water won’t separate and we are not sure that we are in the mood for a midnight swim.  It’s those times when things don’t feel miraculous, when the rector is not new and shiny…it is those times when we have to keep moving forward together and have faith that God will either divide the water or give us the strength to swim.  In the end, it does not really matter who is in front.  What matters is where the wind is coming from, where the power is really coming from.  If we are truly the Church of Christ, then our guidance and strength is always in God’s hands.

[1] Hume, David.
[2] Talmud, Sotah 37a; Midrash Rabbah