July 13, 2014

Church of Peace, United Church of Christ

Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield

Genesis 1:6-8, Exodus 14:5-30

Set Free in the Crossing

This is the second day of our summer worship series. As we’re exploring the days of creation described in the first chapter of Genesis, today we remember the day when God makes the sea and the sky. Actually, there were already the waters of the deep; the waters of the deep have always been. God does not create the water. What God makes is a dome to separate the waters. In the ancient worldview, the sky was thought to be a dome, a barrier between the waters of the earth and the waters of the heavens that can go through windows in the dome when it rains.

Today we remember creation not as the work of inventing something out of nothing, but as setting up a dome in the waters between heaven and earth. God makes a boundary between worlds. And if we know anything about boundaries, it’s that they get crossed, as sure as the rain pours through the clouds in the sky.

Here in our community, the water itself forms a strange and marvelous boundary. The Mississippi River runs along the boundary between Illinois and Iowa. So if you grew up on one side or the other and have allegiance to that state, that will shape how you experience the cities on the other side. That much makes sense.

The strange part is how the river creates a kind of psychological barrier between communities. You know I live in downtown Davenport. When the Centennial Bridge is open, it takes an easy ten minutes for me to get to the church. I live closer to the church than many of our members, but that seems hard to believe, doesn’t it? On both sides, we find ourselves settling into our own side of the river. I do most of my errands on the Iowa side. It’s like we think it’s an extraordinary endeavor to cross the river and travel from one town to the next.

Leaving aside the impending bridge construction, maybe we’re more right about this than we know. Maybe there is something extraordinary about getting up, leaving our homes and moving between worlds. Crossing the bridge every day has become an unexpected spiritual practice for me. I go through my neighborhood of tall buildings and too many one way streets, past the courthouse, the symphony, and city hall, then over the bridge where the pelicans fly. I pass the district and go through the Longview neighborhood where people congregate on front porches, by the big garden on Twelfth Avenue. God is in the traffic and the water; God is in the teenagers riding their bikes.

However you get here, it probably involves traveling between worlds. At heart, the work of our faith is the work of crossing boundaries, refusing to settle in and get stuck. Moving between worlds is how we come to know our own authenticity. It is how we come to know God.

This morning we hear the story of God separating the waters to make the sky. We also hear the story of God separating the water to deliver the Israelites from the Egyptians. Who doesn’t love the moment when the Israelites are driven to the sea with no way to get across, until God makes a way out of no way,  a path across the sea just for them, before closing the waters down on their pursuers! This is a favorite Sunday School story. God’s victory is decisive. The people are afraid, but their faith prevails. Liberation is won. Slavery is drowned in the sea.

I know we’re supposed to love this story, yet I will tell you, I find myself on the wrong side of it. The character of God portrayed in the story does not match up with my belief in a God of mercy and compassion. In the story, the Egyptians represent the force of oppression. But the LORD does not come and trouble the conscience of the pharaoh  provoking him to repent. The LORD our God comes and hardens pharaoh’s heart. Moses tells the Israelites the LORD will fight on their behalf, and Moses is right. The LORD our God hardens the hearts of all the Egyptian pursuers. He throws their army into panic and clogs the wheels of their chariots. After the Israelites pass through, God closes the water back and tosses the Egyptians into the sea.

Our God of love drowns their horses. And the Israelites rejoice.

What do you do about this? It’s like there is a line set down between the God I have come to know all these years, and the God described in this story. This is not the first time I’ve found myself in conflict with what I read in the Bible; and I’m guessing it’s happened to you. One option is to reject these scriptures that make all the trouble. Another option is to try and force a fit, stretch to reach an interpretation that sorta kinda goes with what we already believe.

But I think there might be a better approach. What if we take an honest look at the river that runs between the world of our faith and the world of the story. Then we get up, and leave our homes, and move between worlds.

It is likely that this story of Exodus came together when the Israelites had been taken into exile by the Babylonians. They were scattered from each other, apart from their Temple and a long way from home. Here in this place, they tell stories of their faith. Remember the LORD our God who brought us out of Egypt. It’s not really about the horses whimpering in the water as they drown. It’s not about the mothers of those unnamed Egyptian soldiers who never came home. It’s about whether our God is powerful enough, whether God remembers his people. Just like God set us free from pharaoh, one day, we will be free again. You can believe in that.

So you see, it would be one thing for us to read this together down in the lounge, to go through the verses and trace how three different sources are woven together  in these chapters of Exodus. That would be a lovely way to spend an evening together. But that is not how we would read this if we were sitting around together on cots in a refuge camp. The story sounds different when we’re the ones in need of deliverance.

And so it is that this story from Exodus wasn’t just any old Bible story for slaves in this country who were on the run, escaping to freedom.[1] This is the story preached in clearings and brush arbors where slaves had church. This is the story instilled in children and sung in spirituals. You might be thinking that God is an agent of the white man all concerned with obedience. But look, here is a different story in the Bible. Here God hears the cries of the people and delivers those who are oppressed. Slavery gets drowned in the sea. God is not the property of white men after all.

It was during fourth grade Ohio history when I first learned about the Underground Railroad, a coordinated effort to help slaves in the South escape to northern “free” states and to Canada. Families would travel in groups, usually at night, and a conductor would lead them to safe houses and churches along the way, relaying information with secret signs and codes.

Legend has it that the song “Wade in the Water” was sung as a warning that slave catchers were nearby. Get down, cause God’s gonna trouble the water. In many songs, the Jordan River refers to the Ohio River, a body chilly and cold, deep and wide that separates worlds. It is the line to cross.

These days, I think of our UCC ancestors who helped lead this movement, ministers and congregations who broke the law to do the right thing. It makes you wonder whether we would do that today. I don’t know…. But I hope that we would.

I think of Harriet Tubman. Here is a woman who escaped slavery herself. She made it to the other side, then she went back for the others. She risked her life thirteen times moving between worlds, crossing the boundary between slavery and freedom, between death and life.[2] She was the one who went with  families who were terrified, babies drugged so they wouldn’t cry and give up their position, men fighting the urge to turn around and go back.

When Harriet Tubman crossed the line into freedom she said this, “I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything. The sun came up like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in heaven.”[3]

Most of us here are not risking our lives to escape slavery. But all of us know what it is to move between worlds. You feel this when you leave the hospital and move out of the world of institution to your life at home. It happens when you come home from college for the summer. You aren’t the same, but so many things at home haven’t changed; your bedroom feels weirdly different and the same.

All the time we move between the worlds of our families and the worlds where we work, between the world where we live now and the world of our childhood. Sure you can go back to visit, but it’s always a crossing over. Always a river that divides here from there, now from then. In this crossing over, what happens is we develop new agility and resist getting stuck. We practice the work of our faith. Get up, leave your home, find yourself set free. It’s how we learn who we really are.

In crossing boundaries we come to see that we don’t belong to either world, we belong to God. And God is not stuck on one side of the river or the other, not stuck in one version of the story. God is not limited by my decision that she is the source of undeserved mercy. God is not confined by the story that makes him the one who stops up the chariot wheels. God is greater than our worlds.

The crashing waters break in our crossing over, and where the water breaks, new life is born. All the world made new. There was evening and there was morning, the second day.


[1] http://www.sciotohistorical.org/tour-builder/tours/show/id/10#.U763LKjNBhA

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harriet_Tubman

[3] http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Harriet_Tubman

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