a welcoming, affirming, justice-seeking congregation

Sermon: Enter the Sea                                      Exodus 14:19-31

Rev. Ha Na Park

Enter the sea

It’s not the warm, baptismal water we pour into the font, with care and love for a child’s baptism. It’s cold, dark water, a sea edged with reeds, at early nightfall. You could see people running, running breathlessly, without a glance backward; running towards the sea. And there they come to an abrupt halt, on the edge of the world they have known, in truth, the only world they have known – the Empire of Egypt where, from generation to generation, they have spent hundreds of years in slavery. The exodus is happening, under the charismatic leadership of Moses, and yet, here, on the edge of the world they have known, is the water. And it is the deep, dark water of the sea of reeds. Is it the end? Is it death, waiting? Where’s the divine promise of God’s salvation, deliverance and liberation? People have to think quickly. The Pharaoh’s chariots and horsemen are fast following!

In the Bible, water is very often where people go to experience “transcendence” with God: transcendence from what they were captivated with, with either oppression or sin, to become a new, free creation. Water is where people experience beginning, opening up, like the waters in the creation story, like a baptism. In some languages, the meaning of “to begin” cognates with “opening up”. Genesis tells us, on the very first day of creation, “When in the beginning God created heaven and earth”, the earth was unformed land, and the mighty spirit of God (Ruah) was vibrating in the darkness, sweeping over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be” and there was. The light, water and land, all living things in water, on land and in the air – wild animals and everything imaginable. God says, “Open up”, “Let there be”, and the Words become an invitation to diversity!

And so the water – here, in today’s story, Exodus – must be where God’s people will transcend with God to their beginning, to the “opening up”, to what they have not yet embraced as the new reality for their life – freedom.

This water will be presented here in today’s story as a paradox, as it so often is in the Bible: water as chaos and water as grace; water as destruction and water as rebirth. These people of God do not have the luxury of rumination, today. They have no time to reflect on the meaning of the water before them; they have to make, today, now, a path for grace, a path for freedom.

Over the course of our lives, most of us have grappled with life experiences which require of us those moments – the moment of paradox to choose grace, to find the path for freedom, happiness and liberation. We have lived those moments in which we really need to ask questions and seek answers, or “live with the questions” as Rainer Maria Rilke advised young poets.

Rilke writes in his book, Letters to a Young Poet, “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves… Do not… seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will… gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day, into the answer.”

The miracle of God’s liberating love, as the Bible witnesses, is that God’s Word comes with the teaching of two opposite wisdoms being one. We have to really hear and understand the wisdom of the sense of urgency, which means “It is now! It has to be done, now! You have to make the right choice, now!”. This is the wisdom on one side.

Interestingly, the wisdom on the other side is waiting: being patient and trusting. The contrasting wisdoms of the urgency of now and and waiting lead God’s people onto the path toward freedom. In our story today, at the edge of the world – with indrawn breath of terror and fear of death, people cry out “There is no way to go forward! There is only the sea!”

They can do nothing other than wait – wait for God: wait for God to do what only God can. It is a brutal situation, but we know that moments such as this are the only moments where we will learn our ultimate dependence, our radical dependence on God. Sometimes we have to acknowledge that there’s nothing we can do to change a devastating situation. But… Radical dependence on God shouldn’t come from a sense of human hopelessness, or helplessness. It should be the opposite, because God is not the name of the fix, the rescuer – faith is not testing God to show us God’s effectiveness.

Rather, God is the name for the process of searching. We should understand God in a true, spiritual way. God is deeply present, and “vibrating” in the process, in our process of searching. Last Sunday, I shared my favourite concept of what religion is. “Religion is the passion for the Impossible.” Now, I wish to introduce another concept which seems very relevant to today’s reading.

“Religion is a search for meaning when you don’t have it in this world.” 

In today’s reading, I see the people of Israel in a search for meaning, in a search for meaningful lives when the harsh rulers of Egypt make it so hard to find; they are oppressed. Seeing their agony, Moses tells them, this is not the only world that is possible. We can have another way to live through God-given freedom. When there is no hope, there is hope. And there is dignity!

And so Moses “opens up” the sea – the deep, cold water – the paradox of chaos and grace, destruction and rebirth – the extraordinary place where people transcend the slave mentality of generations to cross over to a new beginning with God. The Bible says, in verses 21 and 22, “Then Moses held out his hand over the sea, and the Lord drove the sea away with a strong east wind all night long, and turned the seabed into dry land. The waters were divided asunder, and the Israelites went through the sea on the dry ground, while the waters formed a wall to right and left of them.”

When people embrace transition, or transcendence with God, they stand at the transition, the transition from the mystery into the miracle. And the miracle is not the water – not those two walls of water – on the left and the right, pushed aside by the strong east wind, the wind of God. No.

Then what is the miracle? Where do we see the miracle, if it is not the water? The miracle is not the seabed, turning into dry land. It is just the seabed, turning into dry land. No matter how spectacular it is, it is soon-to-be-erased, something that will disappear, something that will be only recounted orally and in the image of the poetic mind, only in the mind of the storytellers. It is the land which will have no trace, mark, proof of existence, once the waters return.

The miracle is the people who “entered the sea.” Seeing the dry land appear,

Eli Wiesel vividly captures the moment: “The leaders of the group, urged on by Moses, pushed forward: Don’t be afraid, go, into the water, into the water!”

Then, “Moses suddenly ordered everyone to a halt: Wait a moment. Think, take a moment to reassess what it is you are doing. Enter the sea not as frightened fugitives but as free people!” (Messengers of God)

Imagine with me, do you think that people walked into the dry land, laughing and smiling, and shouting for joy? They might have, but I imagine where they are standing is a very fearful, life-and-death crossroad – adrenaline heightening their senses, choosing ‘flight’ over ‘fight’… They are not entering the dry land with a sense of safety, security and joy. Their logical minds would be telling them that the high walls of water could revert back to flat sea while they are walking on the dry land. They have never before heard that anyone has ever trodden the muddy seabed, and survived. However, they enter the sea. It is not ‘they enter the dry land’. They entered the sea, and they did so as free people.

One point of this story, among many, may be that we, the human race, (not angels), we, the mixed beings (good and bad), “Sinful beings seek justice”. (Niebuhr) We seek freedom. We seek liberation. We seek true happiness. We seek the meaning of life, in the only world we have known, being called to embrace the paradox of the urgency of the calling of now AND of the waiting.

You see, being left or being right may be not the question this story puts before us. Because the miracle is always with the people who define the new path, built when God pushes the walls of water aside to the left and to the right, by the wind of God.

The miracle is never in the safe middle, but with the people who can enter the split, surging, divided, dangerous water with courage, hope and strength as free people, seeking justice. 

To enter the sea: the deeper, the true reality of our lives – our political, economical, sexual reality of our lives. Ultimately, the rich-poor polarity, patriarchy, racial injustice, inequality, and violence must not be allowed its destructive and harmful power. We call on God to transform it, so that our neighbours, therefore us, find the exhilarating, breathtaking self and God in marching, searching and dreaming with God.

To conclude this message with my short testimony: on the Saturday night before my first Sunday worship with you here, last week, I found myself anxious: trembling with fear, gingery, fretting whether people would accept me and my message. When I woke up in the middle of the night, the Spirit inside of me nudged me, saying, “Do not be afraid. Acceptance is not the right question. You are not in the harmful water – where you always struggled to know whether you would be accepted. Think again. Reassess where you are. Know that you are on the wave of the Spirit. Free yourself from a survival mentality. Open up to the Spirit. Leap on it, flow with it, fly with it. Your state has changed! Go with your people, together to be free people to do God’s work.”

To which I could only reply, “Amen”.