I have a confession to make this morning. Though I have only myself to blame, since I picked the texts out of the lectionary options, I’m not entirely comfortable with this morning’s passages. Now Paul’s letter to the Romans, it’s got some great stuff. In this particular selection, I love that Paul is writing that different worship styles, practices, that as long as they honor God, they are not to be judged. It’s not the how that is most important – it’s the who. With God at the center of your practices, whether that means you see one day as more holy than the next or you see all days as holy and consecrated unto God, with God at the center, you’re alright. That’s beautiful. And in a time when some churches, some God families find themselves divided on the how’s to worship, among other things, it’s a good word for all of us to hear.
So I enjoy Paul’s message. What I don’t enjoy so much is one of his examples. The weak eat only vegetables? I have been a vegetarian now for several months, at let me tell you, it takes a lot, A LOT, of will-power, of strength, to resist a really juicy cheeseburger or a delicious smelling chicken casserole. Who’s Paul calling weak? I’d like to see him try it.
Along with squirming a little at Paul’s letter, I also find myself more seriously at unease with the Exodus passage. That may sound a little strange to you – the parting and crossing of the Red Sea, come on, that’s a classic! Everyone knows that story. I’ve worked with a lot of kids in my ministry and I can tell you this is one story they seem to remember. Okay, true, some times it’s the Dead Sea and not the Red Sea, and true, there has been the occasional comment that it was Jesus, not Moses, who lifted his hand to part the sea, but the basic concept is engrained in their minds. Think about your own experiences. How many times in Sunday school did you color in pictures of Moses? How many times at camp did you sing a round of Pharaoh, Pharaoh, O Baby Let My People Go to the tune of Louie, Louie? If there were a top ten list of Bible stories you hear about the most, this would easily be somewhere in the top three.
This story is so well-known because it is powerful, because it gives hope to people who need it the most. It’s about beating the odds with the help of God. The Israelites, even at the height of their power, were never the coolest kids on the block. They never achieved superpower status, in fact often became subsumed by superpowers like Egypt, Assyria, Babylon. Israel may not be the geekiest kid around, but it still got beat up for its lunch money.
And so throughout their history, when the Israelites found themselves being threatened, when they found themselves exiled from the land they loved, when they found themselves, as individuals and as a people, in life’s darkest corners, it is this story that comforts. “Come and see what God has done,” says the psalmist. “God has turned the sea into dry land, they passed through the river on foot.”
This story is the quintessential narrative of God’s love and power for the Israelites. The big bad Egyptians who kept them enslaved for years, they all become lost at the hand of God. Not even a remnant of Pharaoh’s power remained. And God did this, God did this for the Israelites, so that they might be free. God defeated the most powerful nation on Earth, the wealthiest, most privileged people, so that this little band of slaves could be liberated.
This text is so powerful that it is not just the ancient Israelites who remembered it. The Passover Seder, one of the most holy rituals in the Jewish faith, centers around this act of God freeing the people from bondage. With prayer, song, family, and food, this story is remembered by Jewish families around the world every year. And we Christians remember it too. When we celebrate one of our holiest rituals, communion, we are reminded of this story. For on the night of his arrest, it was the Seder Jesus and his disciples were sharing, it was this story that they where gathered to celebrate. When our Lord instituted the Eucharist, the bread he broke and gave to his disciples was unleavened bread, baked to remember the flight from Egypt. On the night before our Savior died so that we might be free, he remembered this act of God’s liberating power.
This story of freedom and the hope it inspires, moves across the generations, across cultures. Many African-American spirituals borne out of the time of North American slavery include references to this narrative. It’s not surprising that this story would spark the imagination and the hope of a people who had to cross the Ohio River to find freedom in the North.
One of my favorite of the spirituals, Wade in the Water, is a coded slave song, instructing slaves on how to avoid capture when escaping their masters. “Wade in the water, wade in the water children, wade in the water, God’s agonna trouble the water.” It is through water that Moses and his people found freedom and so it is through these troubled waters that African-American slaves found freedom.
So why – you may ask, I know I’ve asked myself – why am I bothered by this story? Why does a narrative which as comforted people across cultures, across centuries, why does it put me on-edge, why does it make my body tense, my heart uneasy?
The answer may seem obvious – given the events of the past two weeks, given the destruction and horror that has followed Hurricane Katrina, the promises of troubling waters, they don’t seem so comforting any more. The passage, its sparse detail makes the whole death and destruction seem so simple, so clean. We know that the waters can cause damage that is not simple, clean. And so it is hard to read about waters coming back upon people, about God causing all of Pharaoh’s army to drown, about the Israelites seeing the dead on the shore.
Hearing about God throwing the Egyptians into the sea – that may be a difficult part of the story for you. I know it has been for me. When I was a little girl I first wondered about the poor horses – did they really want to be a part of Pharaoh’s army, bring the Israelites back into slavery? Did they really need to die? And when I grew older, I wondered the same about the Egyptians.
Hearing the stories of the destruction of this recent storm, of the deaths that came when the rain poured down and the waters roared in, and then reading that God threw the army into confusion and caused the waters to come back upon them…
It is not only the waters that are troubled.
But there is something more than the talk of death and God’s hand in it that causes my stomach to clinch. And I have struggled with this “something more,” wrestled with the text, with the world around me, trying to understand what has so upset me. For it has been my experience that the “something more,” the figure that stands on the horizon that you just can’t quite make out, the thing you have to strive just a little bit harder for, stretch till it hurts so you can reach it, the “something more” is coming from the voice of God.
And as I wrestled, trying to understanding what it is that is calling out to me from the story, what it is that so troubles my soul, I found clarity in a place I’d found it many times before – in the voice of a friend. A friend of mine who has been haunted by the images from the Gulf Coast, from New Orleans in particular, asked a simple, yet disturbing question: why are all the faces I see black?
And in that moment – I knew. I knew what has been bothering me, why I have not been able to find this text comforting. It is not because of my questions about horses or even Egyptians – it is because this story about water is everything our current state of emergency is not.
The people leaving in droves from the Gulf Coast, this is not a march toward freedom – it’s a diaspora, a dispersion of people from their homes, from a place that they loved. And the people thrown into confusion, those caught up in the waters, they are not Egyptians, the most powerful, most privileged. They are the Israelites. They are the poor. They are, because the majority of New Orleans’ poor is African-American, they are the descendants of those who once sang songs, dreamt about the freedom found from wading in the water. In our time, in our country, a flood has come, the waters have rolled back onto a people, but a nation of slaves has not been freed.
The statistics that have come rushing out in the aftermath of Katrina have shocked me. In the United States alone, arguably the most privileged and powerful nation in the world, the poverty level has risen for 4 consecutive years so that now 37 million people struggle with basics like food, clothing, shelter.
Even though I’ve helped in soup kitchens, shelters, even though I’ve lived in big cities where the lines of demarcation, the disparity between the lives of haves and have nots, is extremely visible, it wasn’t until Katrina that I have even begun to grasp what it means to be poor. When the waters come rolling in, you can’t leave. To be poor, like 40% of New Orleans school children are, means not having access to a car, or gas money, or a place to go when a hurricane is coming.
As Paul tells us in Romans, not even life or death – the most impenetrable of divisions – divide us before God. No matter what, we are the Lord’s. And yet no matter this, we do not have equal access to even the very basics of life. In this realization of what poverty means, that while the waters may not discriminate in their destruction, money and means did that for them, I have been deeply, deeply troubled. And I know, from speaking with you, from speaking with friends, from hearing bits and pieces on the news, I am not the only one.
And in this awareness, something more has come upon me again. Though the waters on the Gulf have begun to return to their normal depth, this exodus story is not over yet. I do not believe God has troubled the literal waters, that the Lord sent the hurricane for whatever list of sins a person can think up, but I do believe God is here, is actively disturbing the peace.
God’s agonna trouble the water – not rivers or oceans or seas - but the waters of our complacency. Those are the waters that need to be troubled now – and I think for some of us, I know for me, they have been. I hear God calling, as God has been doing since the beginnings of our faith, for us to care for the poor, to ensure that all people are provided for. Can we really have an exodus from a world of have and have nots, from a world where one in six people live in poverty, where almost 28% of our fellow Americans do? Can we really end poverty as we know it, can we find ourselves in a place where all people would be able to flee from disaster? Part of me can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think so.
If it were up to us I would say no. But it’s not, that’s the beauty of this passage, that’s why it is so comforting. I get that now. With the breaking of the levy in New Orleans we tragically learned that humans do not have the power to hold back the sea – but God does. God is more powerful than us, more powerful than any force, of nature, or otherwise, on Earth. We are involved in this exodus, yes. Just as the people had to trust God to cross the sea, Moses had to listen to God’s commands, we must trust and listen. But God is the power behind this wondrous work of old, behind the wonderful works that lie before us. God is the power behind us all. As Paul says, it is by God that we stand or fall, and we will stand for the Lord, one who held back the sea, upholds us.
Working to eradicate poverty, to eliminate the disparaging divide between those who have and those who do not, is not a small thing. But I think it can be aided by seemingly small things. By serving at places like Valley Mission – and sitting down to eat with those who are in need; by donating what we can to the refugees so that their lives do not fall further into despair; by becoming involved in an poverty-relief organization like the Presbyterian Hunger Program, or Make Poverty History or the One campaign; by praying for an end; by thinking about those beyond our small inner circle when we make decisions; by welcoming all those we might see as weak - perhaps because of their faith, perhaps because of their class - into this congregation.
Most importantly, and this is not such a seemingly small thing, we cannot let ourselves calm the waters of our complacency, cannot let those waters return to their normal depths. Not yet. When our souls, our hearts are troubled, we cannot ignore the work God is doing within. We cannot chalk up the dream of a world without poverty to the fancies of an idealistic youth. We cannot let the story end without seeing these Israelites through to the other side, without seeing the powerful army of economic despair swallowed whole by the sea.
We cannot take a bridge over these troubled waters – it’s time to wade.
 Psalm 66:5-6