Monday, as I sat down to look at the lectionary text, the fact that it was September 11 probably forced my eyes and heart to give the Exodus passage greater significance. I still remember the tragic image that captivated our collective memories. I am sure most of us distinctly remember what we were doing that September morning. The day before, I had flown into Raleigh. Deb and I were living in Texas when I received word that a dear friend and colleague in Wilmington N.C. had died. His wife wanted me to perform the funeral. I used this as a chance to see my mother and father who lived in Morehead. The morning of the 11th I drove my car from Morehead to Wilmington on a back road through Camp Lejeune. Not knowing what was happening, I was somewhat alarmed at the activity by MP’s and security police. I was basically given a personal escort off the base. I turned on my radio and the reports I received seemed like something out of a HG Wells novel. Once I got into Wilmington I was stunned to find the streets deserted. I pulled into a Dick’s Sporting Goods store and witnessed what the whole world was watching. Over and over again we saw the replay of the first plane hitting the Trade Center. And then live I witnessed in disbelief as the second plane appeared. The sky was a cloud of fire and smoke. Below, those who survived were frantically running for safety with no idea what the next moment might bring. This image is burned into our collective consciousness. But there was a third horrific memory. That evening, I drove back to Morehead and watched TV. There were brief flashes of reactions around the world. One was a picture of folks dancing for joy as the cloud of fire and smoke briefly reigned supreme over the broken hearts and psyche of our nation. I thought to myself, “How could they rejoice?”
I remember the weeks that followed. That next Sunday the pews of my church were filled to capacity. People who rarely showed up on Christmas and Easter were there that Sunday Morning. Some even came the following week. Some showed came to pray. Some came hoping for a word of hope. Some probably came because they didn’t know where else to go.
Now it is so many years later. Much has changed. Perhaps our innocence has been stripped. Perhaps our hearts have been hardened. Perhaps we have been driven by a long season of revenge. Perhaps we don’t even like remembering because those memories are painful, and on going, and have reached no sense of closure. Those folks that filled our pews for a week or two have gone. Their reaction was as much one of fear and confusion as anything else. Maybe they just they didn’t know where else to go. Maybe they were looking for answers and found none. Sometimes the church doesn’t have answers, only stories.
Our Old Testament text this morning is about a pillar of fire and smoke. Many of us learned the story as children. The Hebrew people, the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had gone to Egypt to survive a draught. Then they made the mistake of staying. Eventually the Pharaoh who knew Joseph died and the welcome mat was rescinded. Southerners have a great saying about visiting. Never stay more than three days. That is when fish and guest begin to smell. The Hebrew people not only extended their welcome, they began to smell. Since they wouldn’t leave, Pharaoh put them to work. Eventually the relationship resembled slavery. The Hebrew people become so immersed in Egyptian culture they forgot their past and their God. In their misery they cried out to anyone who would listen. Their cries caught the ear of Yahweh and the God of Abraham responded by sending Moses. After numerous conversations with Pharaoh, the scene was set for the Hebrews to leave Egypt. They fled east toward the Promised Land only to discover there was a body of water standing in their way. They looked at the water, then looked back at the cloud of smoke approaching. Everyone knew the dust was the chariots of Egyptian Army. No one doubted their mission was to destroy the Hebrew people. The Hebrews turned to Moses and cried out, “Why did you bring us out here to die?” Moses responded by saying, “You are a people of life not death.” He lifted his shaft and a great cloud of smoke and fire separated the children of Israel from the armies of Pharaoh. Then the waters began to part and the Hebrews made their way through the danger to solid ground. In all the smoke the Egyptians could not see what was happening. They followed the Israelites into the water and as you know, that was their undoing. As the Israelites were taking their first step toward a new life, the waters rescinded destroying every member of the Egyptian army. That night the lifeless bodies of the Egyptians washed up on the shore. This is the oldest story of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is the story that was told throughout the history of Israel. When the Jews were in Babylon the story was remembered. When the Romans destroyed
the story was remembered. In the death
camps of Jerusalem Auschwitz the song faithfully sung
was, “Sing to the Lord for God has triumphed graciously, the horse and the
rider God has thrown into the sea.” When we remember 9/11 don’t our hearts burn
with a desire for God to once again to stir up the waters against those who are
Sometimes we want God to be judge, jury and prosecuting attorney. Sometimes we want a God who strikes vengeance on those we consider to be our enemy. We want a clear and concise action to justify Christians marching forth to war. God is not controlled by our emotions. Within the utter mystery of the fire and the smoke that separates the Israelites from the Egyptians is an unpredictable God. As we continue to read the stories of the Old and New Testament we discover this is not a God who is endlessly biased toward one people at the expense of another, but a God who is steadfastly preoccupied with a gracious horizon that we cannot comprehend. This is the God who insists we forgive our enemies not once, not twice but seventy times seven. How does one reconcile the slaughter at the Red Sea and this extraordinary proclamation by Jesus? I can only declare God is, quite simply, bigger than us and bigger than our agendas.
As I struggled mightily with the Red Sea story and the images of September 11, I remembered an ancient story from the Hebrew tradition that has accompanied the Exodus text. According to a rabbi, the angels were singing and dancing over the deliverance of
at the Red Sea. One of the angels noticed that
God had not joined their celebration.
“Look”, he said, “The Lord, the Creator of the Universe is sitting there
weeping!” They approached God and asked,
“Why are you weeping when your children the Israelites have been delivered by
your power?” God said to them, “I am
weeping for the Egyptians washed up on the shore. Those sons, those husbands, those fathers, are
also my children.”
Today we remember images of a cloud of fire and smoke. We remember the pain and heartbreak. We remember our enemies singing and dancing for joy. Perhaps we might also remember our God who does not rejoice at anyone’s victory but instead weeps at everyone’s loss. It is this memory that might lead us down the road to forgiveness. Amen.