I remember having a children’s bible with an illustration of this morning’s story from the book of the Exodus. The waters were raging, people were falling, chariots were on their sides, broken wheels littered the foreground. It was a dramatic and intense image that drew me into the scene and has stayed with me.
There’s a resonance with some of the recent images we’ve seen in the press, devastating images of people being washed up by the sea. None of us forgets that iconic image of the small Syrian boy washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean; it’s hard to unsee the images of overcrowded unsafe dinghies transporting people across the Channel. Those stories stay with us.
The imagery isn’t the only way in which I think that the parting of the Red Sea speaks into our contemporary context. The story of the Exodus is the story of a people who had been oppressed and de-humanised and who were seeking a better life for themselves, for their children and their children’s children. It’s a story of weak and strong; a story about the use and abuse of power; a story about privilege and scarcity; about slavery and freedom.
And of course, it’s a story about salvation – about endings and beginnings, about our belief that however bleak things are, there is the potential for transformation, that things really could be different.
When we think about the film coverage we see of people on dinghies, or of the people whose lives have been devastated this week by the fires in their refugee camp, or the Rohingya who watched from across the water as their villages were burned, or any of the other examples we could think about, we see, in very simple terms, a group of people who are oppressed by a more powerful group of people. Now there are lots of complex reasons for those dynamics to arise and I don’t want to go too far down that route. But I do want to pause and think for a moment about the ways that the story of the oppressed people who built the pyramids and sought to escape from their masters is not so different from many of the stories that we might hear today. All of these stories include themes about status and the ability to self-determine, about fundamental economic differences that shape the lives and life chances of those who are affected and about the right to religious freedom.
And that’s true whether the people we hear and read about could be seen as the winners or the losers or perhaps, like those Egyptians who were the victims in this story, they are actually both.
We don’t need to look too far to see examples of the impact of long-term oppression on communities of people; to see that people who have been de-humanised over a number of generations, or people who have lost hope, finding themselves unable to see a better future for the next generations, begin to contemplate responses that are extreme and potentially dangerous. It’s been said many times that you don’t put your children into a tiny overcrowded boat unless you think that the alternative is even more dangerous. People take these risks because they are seeking a place and a life that is a bit safer and a bit more secure, they are seeking salvation.
It’s also the case that we don’t have to look too far to see the development of a sense of entitlement amongst certain groups of people and the desire to identify difference that allows them to feel superior. Those people may not be actively seeking change, they may believe they have been saved, but we may perceive things differently.
The story of the Exodus is the story of the salvation of the people of Israel; they were led out of Egypt into a place that offered a bit more safety and a bit more security. Of course, as we know, the story doesn’t end there. This is a story about one of many new beginnings; one of many new opportunities; one of many chances to turn to God and to find ways to trust.
The story is a good reminder that salvation isn’t a once and for all moment in our lives, or in the life of our world. It’s an ongoing process of co-creation with God; a process of listening and risk taking and following and consolidating and then doing all of that again, and again. The people were saved from lives of slavery, were saved from destruction as a community but that wasn’t a magic wand that meant nothing more would happen. Good and bad things continued to happen, and still continue to happen. The parting of the Red Sea – whether or not it was an actual historic event – is an illustration of God, God’s people and God’s created world coming together to work in partnership.
As we think about the ways in which we are both oppressors and the oppressed, both the privileged and those who are struggling, this story is a reminder that we can both save others, and be saved ourselves, if and when we work in that kind of partnership. The natural disasters that we see erupting in all parts of our world are not isolated events that happen randomly. They are the direct result of decisions that have been taken over many generations, decisions that now leave our planet in a precarious state. In our state of privilege, we can make decisions that impact positively or negatively on the likelihood of further devastating tsunamis and fires and floods. In our state of vulnerability, we can pray that others will make decisions that are in the best interests of people they don’t know and will never encounter.
And where is God in all of this? God continues to offer to us that same opportunity to be saved, to find a life that is safer, more secure, more sustainable. But God isn’t going to do that for us while we sit back and wait. It will only happen if we work with God, if we become co-creators of a more sustainable more respectful, more balanced and equal world.
Perhaps one of the reminders from this story is that oppression is not God’s way. St Paul alludes to this in the verses we heard from the letter to the Romans: why do you pass judgement on your brother or sister? Or why do you despise your brother or sister? He could perhaps have asked, why do you oppress your brother or sister?
We all want to live in a better world, a less troubled world, a more God centred world. If we are to find a route out of our current situation, to exodus this scenario and move into a new beginning, we need to play our part. God is offering us a road to salvation; we are called to play our part in the co-creation of that place of salvation.