May 8, 2016
Church of Peace, UCC
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
Prayer from the Middle of the Sea
Seems to me, the first thing to know about liberation is that it is not imaginary. It’s not a made-up story about equal rights or a fantasy about having enough to eat. Liberation has the lofty, rising ring of a churchy ideal, but the test for its truth is not an idea. It’s whether the people who are vulnerable are allowed to live their own lives. That’s the first thing.
The second thing to know about liberation is that it needs our imagination, our willingness to believe in a reality that has not yet been born, our yearning toward the fullness of life, not just because we mean to escape oppression, but because we mean to get out alive, then keep going.
In each of us, we harbor a holy impulse that connects our being to the being of God, our creativity to the creative possibility of God. The first thing may be getting out of the violence, but the second thing is remembering our call to live, imagining our life set free. I wonder how you imagine liberation…
For me, I first became aware of liberation in sixth grade when I was fascinated with the Underground Railroad. Now there is certainly a risk of romanticizing the Underground Railroad, getting swept up in the heroism of the conductors and the adventure of the covert operations. I was not at risk for doing this; I absolutely fell into the majesty of the romance one hundred percent.
I loved trying to decode Sunday School spirituals to figure out what they actually meant. “Wade in the water children, God’s gonna trouble the water” means “Get off the trail and hide! They’re coming!”
I loved learning that if a chimney had a white stripe around it, there was a secret passage inside the house; and that if a certain statue was out front, don’t stop here tonight, the judge is home and it’s not safe. I found thrilling hope in knowing that a vast conspiracy of civil disobedience could put a dent in the industry of slavery and save the lives of families trying to get out.
The question that lurked in the back of my mind was this: If I had been alive back then, would I have helped the Underground Railroad? Would I have broken the law to harbor fugitives? Sure now we know the abolitionists are heroes, but at the time, would I have done it?
Of course, there is still a need for liberation. The better question is, what am I doing about it now?
Today we’re continuing our Easter sermon series called “Faith Set Free” and we hear the favorite Bible story of the Israelites escaping slavery in Egypt in order to arrive in the Promised Land. Now you can understand why some argue that this is the story of our faith. It evokes the story of creation, just like the world was made out of the waters of the deep, victory over chaos. It showcases the promise that God will rescue us from danger. And if you look at this story in a certain light, you can hear themes of resurrection, new life lurking somewhere out beyond the water and the wild.
The people remembered this story when they had been taken into captivity by the Babylonians. Remember the LORD who brought us out of Egypt. In our country, the slaves turned to this story on the Underground Railroad.
Now I wonder whether it is being read in refugee camps in Jordan. I wonder if they’re reading it in immigration detention centers in Arizona or Indiana. Because it’s one thing to hear this story read out loud in church on a pleasant Mother’s Day. It’s another thing to hear this story if we were all crowded in a room with a long row of bunks, unsure whether we would ever make it home. Whatever home might mean…
In the excerpt we hear today, one thing that happens is the people get to the middle. The Israelites have decided to follow Moses, but now the Egyptians are pursuing them, and maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all.
The people cry out to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us?… It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than die in the wilderness…”
Or it would have been better for us to take our chances with the gang violence in Honduras than die out here in the desert of New Mexico.
It would have been better for us to join Assad’s regime and become killers than drown in these waters off Italy.
It would have been better to keep living with my abusive boyfriend than die out here and risk getting my kids taken by the state.
So here we are. The people are terrified in the middle of the middle of the choice, and Moses tells them, “Do not be afraid, stand firm and see the deliverance that the LORD will accomplish… The LORD will fight for you and you only have to keep still.” Then get this. God says to Moses, “Why do you cry out to me?” Oh Moses, you just can’t win.
But what happens next is God works with Moses to part the sea. God hardens the hearts of the Egyptians and directs the cloud to move between the Egyptians and the Israelites so the cloud lights up the darkness, and the Israelites cross the parted sea, walking on dry land between the walls of water.
After the Israelites walk out of Egypt, but before they reach the other side… Before Miriam picks up her tambourine and sings the song of the horses God drowned in the sea… the Israelites are in the middle hemmed in by the cloud, not sure when they’ll sleep or where they’ll be when they do. Here the prayer from the middle of the sea gets born, and what liberation are they dreaming of? What is the freedom they’re imagining? And somebody better help them…
When it comes to liberation in this country, we might be in a similar position. These days we are living in the season after slavery has been outlawed but before the day when we’ve overcome racism. We’re living in a day after we’ve begun meaningful interfaith work, but before our Muslim sisters and brothers are not feared on an airplane; after gay marriage is legally recognized but before transgender persons can use a public restroom without fear.
After we have come so far, but before we’ve reached the beloved community where everyone is welcome and no one is afraid, we are in the middle. The danger of being in the middle is this is where it is easiest to give up, to lose our prayer, to settle for the way things are. Because there’s great energy when we first set out and marvelous triumph when we land on the other side, but in between, why keep going?
This complacency is especially a risk for all of us who experience privilege. It’s easy to fall into the thinking that goes, “Eh, things are all right for me. Why keep going…”
Except what if this is actually the place where work for liberation is most critical, and what if we are exactly the people called to help it along?
There is good news in the promise that you don’t have to be oppressed yourself in order to work for liberation as an ally. This means listening to the people whose bodies are on the line. This means taking the power we can easily reach and pivoting it toward those who need it. This is the work of Christ.
Early in my ministry, I attended an ecumenical clergy gathering in Ohio. On this particular Wednesday, many of the other clergy at the table were men older than me, which was not uncommon. We went around the circle sharing greetings. When it was my turn, I introduced myself as one of the pastors of the UCC church. No one said this out loud, but the energy in the room was: Sure you are… Isn’t that sweet. This was not my first meeting being the only young woman pastor in the room.
So what happened next I never saw coming. The person sitting beside me was a leader in our denomination who also happened to be a member of my church. After introducing himself, he added, “And Mariah is my pastor.” When he said this, energy in the room changed; the other pastors at the table recognized me. It’s like he told them “She is one of us,” and they believed him, and I could not have done that by myself. He took the power in the room, and handed some of it to me, and there are chances for us to do this all the time.
I am forever in debt to gifted women pastors who went before me and made it possible for women to become ordained. These women clergy laid the groundwork that I walk on, and I wouldn’t be here without them. But the decision to ordain women into ministry also took men who listened to the women, men who value our leadership and call us Pastor.
Now certainly, being taken seriously at a clergy gathering is not escaping slavery. Not at all. Not even close. Something they have in common is a vision of greater liberation and the truth that we can’t get there by ourselves. There was a day in this country when the Underground Railroad needed allies —spies, and conductors, people who would slide the rug over the trapdoor then lie to the authorities who dropped by for a visit. And if I had a chance, would I have helped the people escaping?
There is still a need for liberation; the better question is, what am I doing about it now?
Our help is needed. Our imagination for liberation is needed. We are in the middle of the sea. We have got each other to help across, so we have got to help each other across. Let this be the place where our prayer rises up and meets the luminous dream of God, where everyone is welcome and no one is afraid, where we get out alive and then keep going…
Behind us the water breaks, and new life is born right here. God help us. Amen.