There is an irony in the selection of texts for this week. We are two days past 9/11, a date when we mourn the loss of life in such large numbers in the terrorist attack on New York and Washington DC and Pennsylvania. And we read a story of a miraculous rescue through an impossible barrier and the subsequent loss of lives of the pursuing nation, while a song is sung in praise of the victory. We remember the false reports of Muslims in this country singing and dancing with joy at the devastation on 9/11. We were outraged that such a celebration should occur. Those lies were exposed, but some still cling to that image. So, how do we as the people of God celebrate the destruction of the Egyptian enemy in the sea with dancing and singing and feel good about ourselves? There is a rabbinic teaching that says that when the Israelites crossed the sea and were safe, a cheer broke out in heaven. Then when the sea crashed down on the pursuing Egyptian army, another cheer went up in heaven. But God turned to the angels and said, “Why do you rejoice when my children have drowned in the sea?”
We cannot resolve all these issues in one act of worship this month, any more than we can “explain” how the sea parted and the people were set free. But we can be aware of the implications of our celebrations and our praise. We can be aware that praying for freedom is threatening to the status quo and unsettling for many; some will be hurt in the struggle for liberation; blood will be shed. It is happening around us all the time. We cannot ask for an easy road; we cannot ask for painless transformation.
But we can, and we should, indeed we must, ask for God to go with us. That is the focus of our worship today—not a celebration over enemies, but a recognition that in the difficult times, and in the comfortable ones, God is with us. God goes before and God follows behind. So, like the people of God on the shores of the Sea of Reeds, let us rejoice that God is with us; when there seemed to be no way, God makes a way. When there seems to be no hope, God is our hope. And God continues to be our hope, the hope we live out in our moving forward, even when lying down and giving up seems like the logical thing to do.
There are stories in your congregation of going ahead when there seemed to be no way to go; stories of those who persevered when giving up made more sense. How can you cultivate those stories and give folks a chance to share them? Get someone to record their stories of perseverance (maybe of deliverance, if that has happened) and use those to give hope to the whole body of faith. For those stories that haven’t ended yet, just the continuation is worth sharing. Exodus tells us there was a wall of water beside the people who walked across the dry seabed. How harrowing must that have been, but still they walked—one foot in front of another, as they made their way across. Who is making their way across, trying not to stare at the wall of water and all that could go wrong, but instead keeping their eyes on the hope that lies before them? The body needs to hear those stories.
Our songs are songs of assurance of the presence. It may not be a cloud that leads or an angel that follows, but it is the confidence and support of the community of faith. Let’s hear songs of faith and confidence. We may not yet be able to sing as a congregation, but we can lean into the faith of our songwriters and be reminded that we are not alone.
Images could be reminders of a difficult time in the history of the church, the building burned, perhaps, or a tornado struck. But the church rebuilt; the community found a way through. Most congregations treasure those stories, and they have become an active part of the oral history. As you play a song of God’s presence, make a slideshow of the broken structure and the rebuilding that took place, but feature the people who worked. It’s not the building that really matters; it is a symbol of the resilience of the people who know they walk with God.
If you are worshiping in person, maybe create a space in the sanctuary that looks like a wall of water. You could even use it to help with social distancing. Consider using blue streamers or rolls of paper that remind us we walk through difficult times. But God’s got us; that’s where the celebration comes in—that confidence, that faith, even when we don’t yet see the other side.
Remember, we are in the wilderness. The people standing on the shore, amazed at what God had accomplished, were not done with their journey. They had only just begun. We are on a journey too, making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. And we have only just begun. We are still wandering, no matter how focused our mission and our goals might be, we are still wandering in the wilderness.
Rev. Dr. Derek Weber, Director of Preaching Ministries, served churches in Indiana and Arkansas and the British Methodist Church. His PhD is from University of Edinburgh in preaching and media. He has taught preaching in seminary and conference settings for more than 20 years.