I have always loved these great stories of the Hebrew Bible. They are stories of redemption and liberation from oppression, in which God finally hears and frees and saves. That is the narrative arc of the Bible we read and the God we serve.
Now true, the Egyptians may not like this story. At Bible and Bagels the other day a former teacher told of a time when two Egyptian girls in class physically clenched when they listened to the Passover story.
So we always have to be careful about the stories we tell and how we interpret them, lest we get triumphal, and act as if our story is the only story that matters.
But Egyptians have their religious and cultural stories that work for them.
And whoever plays the Indians in the World Series, I want them CRUSHED! So I kind of get the over-the-top enthusiasm of the children of Israel!
Always we have to remember that when the story of the Passover was first told and written down, it had not yet been appropriated by the church. In fact the Jews were in exile and they needed this story to remind them that God was still around and that soon and very soon – God would act on behalf of the oppressed.
And the stories are never neat and tidy – they are messy and full of life and leave all the big questions unanswered like:
• Kill the first born of the Egyptians? Really?
• Why did God leave the Israelites in slavery for generations – why didn’t he just save them when he had Joseph as a high official?
• Why would the Israelites complain after being freed and seeing all that God had done for them?
And there are always great dramatic moments. The people are stuck between the chariots that are chasing them and the sea that is before them – what are they going to do? Of course, we all know what happens, or at least the over 50 crowd does – Charlton Heston comes out and raises his staff and parts the waters and the Israelites walk through but the Egyptians are wiped out.
Now at Forest Hill Church, we are not biblical literalists. We have been taught to read the bible critically and have faithfully academic questions to bring to the text. A critical mind is a good thing – but it can squash the power of a good story.
And many scholars believe that this heroic, miracle story was built upon the very short sentence of the prophet Miriam’s song – which is one of the most ancient verses in all of Hebrew scripture. She and the other women are dancing and singing: “Sing to the Lord for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.”
You can tell a lot about people by the stories they tell and the songs they sing. The stories you tell can save your life!
I used to love my grandmother’s stories about growing up in Cincinnati – from German heritage she would talk about the bakeries and the horse drawn wagons. Her family worked hard and suffered during the depression. Her stories named and claimed her – perseverance, no complaining, proud of the wealth she and her husband accrued from a very simple beginning. I learned from her the phrase I cling to often: “This too shall pass!”
I loved hearing my dad talk about his parochial upbringing and then WWII and how it changed everything. Without the war he wouldn’t have discovered his love of languages, which took him to the University of Cincinnati where he met my mom – and here I am! (That may not be the way you want to interpret the story – but it is MY story and I am sticking to it!)
When I meet with couples that are getting married, my first question to them is always, “Tell me your story! How did you meet? When did you know? How did you propose?” And always these beautiful profound stories come out, stories that touch on the holiness of being led, of some presence bigger than they – even if they don’t use religious language.
And the stories of immigrants who risked everything and migrants who left on the “midnight train to Georgia.”
I remember when my children were in high school, they read The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, a collection of connected essays about his recollection of his time in Vietnam. At the end of the book he writes that some of the things he describe didn’t really happen but that they are true.
Critical history is fine, but storytelling is better. That is why we read short stories and novels – because they can get to truths deeper than the facts!
Being a person of faith – which means trusting that God is still acting out this great narrative of redemption that is ours, as Christians, through Jesus Christ – we read this story as our story of salvation and redemption.
We believe that God sees and hears and knows and will free the oppressed and is on the side of the oppressed. And so from time to time we stand with the oppressed because we believe this story!
What is your story? I am much more interested in inviting you to look at your own past and to tell your own stories of what happened to you that shaped your faith, shaped your understanding of God, made you who you are. Because we build community by sharing our stories with one another.
This story of salvation from the oppression of Egypt inspired the Jews when they were in exile in Babylon: “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and there we wept… singing the songs of Zion!” (Psalm 137)
It reminded them that once they were enslaved in Egypt but then they were free. The telling of the story cast a hopeful light for the future!
And the slaves from Africa claimed this story as their own: “Go down Moses, way down in Egypt land tell old Pharaoh, let my people go!” And this story shaped a movement from oppression to liberation and it still does.
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, thou who hast brought us thus far on our way; thou who hast by they might led us into the light… We have come over a way that with tears has been watered, we have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered, out of the gloomy past till now we stand at last, where the white gleam of our star is cast.
James Weldon Johnson wrote those words in 1900 which became our hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
And those who traveled from Europe’s shore after the reformation also used this story to shape their story as they sought religious freedom from the oppression of a dying old-fashioned world.
The world can denigrate faith and scoff at these stories, but the world has appropriated them as their own. Because any freedom movement, any rejoicing at release, are grounded in the universal truths of redemption and that oppression does not win.
What’s your story? When did you have to “go through” and press on to the other side? You know that the word “suffer” actually means to “go through” – and sometimes like the children’s book reads: “You can’t go over it, you can’t go under it, you can’t go around it – so you have to go through it!”
Let’s face it. Most of our lives are spent in the wilderness between the chariots and the sea.
And we who have been caught on that shore line and lived to tell about it – there is something worthy about rejoicing and testifying and giving thanks and like Miriam the prophet taking up our tambourine and dancing and giving thanks.
I remember the words of my spiritual director from many years ago when I was going through a difficult time. He asked me to remember a time when I was scared, or sure something would fail, or I was lost in self-pity or regret, or doubt, playing some embarrassing incident over and over and over again in my mind – but always these things do pass – and I move along until the next time, I am chased by chariots and forced to move into the unsettling waters.
And I find comfort in present moments of unrest remembering the passages through, and believe in the words of the great hymn “Amazing Grace.”
We need to remember our stories. And trust that God is in them and will not leave us stranded. For “Grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”
And someday. . . someday we will dance and sing together on the other side!