Saturday, September 10, 2011

Not One of Them Remained: Sermon, September 11, 2011

Exodus 14:19-31, 15:1-13

Giving all glory and honour to God.

Our story today is the one that is the climax of the movies about this book of the Bible, Exodus. The book goes on for 26 more chapters, but this is the big moment in The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston, and Prince of Egypt and others: the people of Israel are fleeing slavery in Egypt, and come to the sea, where it seems the Egyptian army chasing after them has them trapped. But the power of God is with them. Moses stretches out his hand over the sea – this is the big scene in the movies – and a wind divides the waters, and the Israelites cross the sea on the dry land between the two walls of water.

This is a good news story: God intervenes on behalf of powerless people. God makes a way out of no way. This story has been tremendously meaningful for oppressed people everywhere who have taken it as their story. And it is our story; God comes in Jesus Christ to liberate us from the oppression of sin in all forms. In our baptisms we re-enact this story, salvation through the water.

Good news. Except for the Egyptians. They are still coming in their chariots after the Israelites, and they too start crossing the sea on the dry land. But the cloud of God’s power frightens them, the chariot wheels get stuck, and the Egyptians panic and start to turn back. Then Moses stretches out his hand again over the sea, and the water covers the Egyptian army, drowning the chariot drivers and the horses. The Exodus story says, ‘Not one of them remained. Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore.’

Dead on the shore. This morning I can’t help but think of another story. Ten years ago today I went to work in an office building in downtown Ottawa. The woman in the cubicle next to mine heard on her radio that a plane had hit the World Trade Centre in New York City. We assumed that it was an accident, but we went and turned on the TV in the office kitchen, and then we saw another object streak across the screen and explode in the second World Trade Centre tower. It wasn’t an accident. We watched as the towers burned, and word came of a third plane hitting the Pentagon, and then another one apparently crashed in Pennsylvania, and then the towers collapsed, a shocking sight as clouds of dust and ash billowed over lower Manhattan. Later we were told by a friend that her cousin was late for work in the World Trade Centre that morning, and lived because she missed the plane’s impact. And someone else - a consultant at work - told me how he cancelled his meeting in one of the towers that day; everyone on that floor was killed.

Our reading for September 11th: Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Our memory of September 11th: we saw thousands of people die as we watched the explosions and fires and the towers fall. Now, there seems to be a big difference between these two stories. In our 9/11 story, the people who died are innocent, victims of a terrible act of terror carried out by fanatics, and the firefighters and police officers who rushed bravely into the burning buildings, many of whom died, are the good guys. In Exodus the Egyptians who die are the bad guys, and the Israelites are the good guys. The Egyptian bad guys being drowned is a good thing. Isn’t it? Moses and the Israelites sing that it is, the song we read together, the Song of the Sea, celebrating that God has triumphed gloriously: Horse and rider are thrown into the sea, they went down into the depths like a stone, they sank like lead in the mighty waters.

There’s another story, a Jewish one that explains and expands the Exodus story, called a midrash. In this midrash the angels sing a hymn to God as the water covers the Egyptian army. And God tells the angels to stop celebrating, saying, “While my creatures are drowning in the sea you would sing a hymn?”

But, we could say, wasn’t it necessary that the Egyptians die so that the Israelites could survive? Isn’t the destruction of the enemy part of God’s plan for God’s people? Well, maybe. But this summer, during our vacation, I stood on the battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. During three days in July 1863 9800 men were killed there, the bloodiest battle of the American Civil War. I stood at the grove of trees called the High Water Mark of the Confederacy, the furthest point reached by the Confederate attack on the third day of the battle, Pickett’s Charge, when 12,500 Southern troops marched out of the woods to assault the Northern line, and only half came back. After that the Southern states were never able to take the initiative again. And a lot of people said that all this death was the price to pay to end slavery and preserve the United States. Northerners were sure that God was on their side. They were like the Israelites and the slaveholding Confederates like the Egyptians. The Union sang, “Glory, glory, hallelujah, his truth is marching on.” But Abraham Lincoln, who was President during that war, pointed out that both sides, North and South, read the same Bible and prayed to the same God, and each called on God for help against the other.

Sisters and brothers, we can’t always understand God’s reasons. Lincoln said the Almighty has his own purposes. Neither North nor South could know if the Civil War was necessary to abolish slavery. It seems that in our imperfect world, where human efforts always fall short of true peace, we cannot get away from violence no matter how hard we try; nations will turn to war as the way to make peace. We can’t agree on whether this is God’s will, or how we should respond as God’s people. But while we cannot know God’s purpose in each event in our world, we do know the themes revealed to us in the stories of Israel and the life and resurrection of Jesus – that God is loving and wise and just, that life will triumph over death, that, as the prophet Ezekiel says, God does not delight in the death of the wicked. As God tells the angels in that old Jewish story, don’t celebrate while my creatures, no matter what side they’re on, are dying.

We only read the Exodus story this morning. But, as on every other Sunday, in our cycle of readings there are two more. The Apostle Paul writes to the Romans, "Why do you judge your brother or sister? Why do you look down on your brother or sister? We will all be judged by God." And in Matthew’s Gospel, Peter asks Jesus, "How many times should I forgive? As many as seven times?" And Jesus tells him, "Not just seven times, but as many as seventy-seven times."

Don’t delight in the death of the wicked. Don’t judge. Forgive as many times as it takes. Love your enemy. All this sounds nice in the abstract, or applied to conflicts safely in the past, in the Exodus 1500 years ago or the Civil War 150 years ago. But when we think of September 11, 10 years ago, it’s hard. For some of us it will be impossible. Don’t judge the hijackers? Don’t assume that our side is in the right, when Canadians died in New York City, when innocent people were slaughtered? Forgive, when the trauma is still with us after 10 years, when we still feel vulnerable? Love our enemy when terrorists are still threatening us?

God knows that this is difficult. We are not asked to forget what was done. We are not asked to stop remembering the 3,000 people who died on 9/11. We are not asked to ignore ongoing suffering, of families who lost loved ones, of people who still have physical and mental wounds from that day, of firefighters and others who are now ill from breathing the toxic air, of the hundreds of thousands who have been killed and wounded and uprooted in wars and terror attacks since.

But we are called to recognize that terrorism attacks us not just physically, but psychologically. Terrorism doesn’t just create fear; it infects us with the same poison as the terrorists, leading us astray to embrace hate and violence as they do. Since 9/11 we have struggled against the emotions the attacks stirred up in us. One church leader has said that too often we have reached for the flag rather than the cross. During this long, sad decade people of faith have turned from God’s way to seek revenge, justify torture, demonize Muslims, and restrict religious freedom, in the name of national security and even in the name of Jesus.

Brothers and sisters, we have been called, in that moment of crisis 10 Septembers ago and in the years since, to stand and be God’s instruments of love and justice, to follow the God of love and forgiveness, the God who does not delight in death, the God who came to us in Jesus Christ who forgave his enemies from the cross. And we have tried, hard as it is, to live that call: to pray and work for peace, to create dialogue and partnerships with our sisters and brothers of other faiths, to turn away from fear and hatred, to overcome evil with good. And that does not stop after 10 years; it continues. It must continue. The Prime Minister has designated September 11 as a national day of service, so that a legacy of acts of compassion will be part of this day.

Where is God in these stories of destruction and death? As I said, we cannot know God’s purposes. But we do know this: God was with the people of Israel, struggling to freedom across the sea, and God was weeping with the mothers and wives of the Egyptians who lay dead on the shore. God was crying, looking over the Gettysburg battlefield and the thousands of dead and wounded from both sides lying there. And God’s tears flowed on September 11th, for the dead and suffering, for the twisted beliefs of the hijackers that led them to this mass murder. God was with the people who comforted and healed wounds and welcomed strangers. God was with people of faith who responded in faith. And God is with us, in the valley of the shadow of death, with us to strengthen us to move forward from this anniversary in love, trusting in God, seeking peace and justice and resisting evil, and always holding to the hope that is ours in Jesus Christ rising from death, that terror and violence can never have the victory over life and love. That is our God, the God of all people.

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