When you hear today’s reading from the book of Exodus, who do you imagine yourself to be? With whom do you identify? Are you the Hebrew people? Or do you see yourself as part of the Egyptian army? Can you see yourself in Moses, or do you more closely align with Pharaoh?
Maybe you haven’t given it much thought. But take a second, right now, and think about it. If you were to be one or the other, who would you be? Does your life more closely align with the former slaves, the Hebrews, refugees in search of a new home, fearing for their lives?
Or are you a part of the empire, the power structures of today, do you, like the Egyptians, benefit from the labor and lives of an underclass of people?
What do you think? Uncomfortable? Anyone muttering less than complimentary things about me under their breath yet?
It’s okay if you are. I don’t really like this much either. I don’t much care for either/or propositions. I tend to think things are usually more shades of gray than black or white. And yet, as I’ve been working through this reading from the book of Exodus this week, I was struck by the duality of this story. There are two forces in this story, God and those that oppose God. There is no middle ground. Either you are on the side of those whom God favors, or you drown.
It’s a troubling narrative thread, one that resonates a little too closely with the tenor of conversations in our country today. I’m right. You’re wrong. I’m good, you’re evil. Our way is the best, your way will destroy the entirety of civilization or something with slightly less hyperbole but you get the idea. So I wonder if a narrative like this, which seems to invite you to choose sides, to choose the winning and living side, I wonder if it’s the kind of story we need right now?
But the Exodus narrative differs from the polarized and polemical conversations played out in the political and social spheres of our country in that God set this whole liberation thing in motion. This was not Moses’ doing. Nor was it the peoples’ prerogative, as we see through their complaints once the Egyptian threat becomes real again.
It was God who heard the cries of God’s people when they were in bondage in Egypt. It was God who responded to the cries of the people on account of their taskmasters and sent Moses to them. It was God who sent the plagues, who intensified Pharaoh’s resolve. It was God who was the actor. It was God who freed them, who brought them through the waters so that they could live in a new way so that they could be a new people.
In our second reading, from Paul’s letter to the church at Rome, we are confronted with another though not altogether dissimilar duality. In chapter five, Paul crafts a beautiful argument, in which he makes the case that the law made all the more evident our proclivity to break the law and to turn away from God. But in the face of our disobedience, our failed attempts to have it our way, God uses these occasions to lavish more grace, more mercy, more love on us.
So Paul asks a question to which he already knows the answer, should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?
By no means!
All right that’s a lame church friendly translation. The Greek phrase there is μὴ γένοιτο (me genoito) and most scholars think it needs to carry a little weight, Paul’s being emphatic here, and the “by no means” we get from NRSV, is just kind of weak.
While not a direct translation, to more effectively communicate the sentiment of Paul’s writing in modern English it might go something like this.
What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? Oh hell no!
Sisters and brothers, you’ve been drafted onto a new team. You have a new allegiance. Because of what Jesus has done for you, because you have a share in his death, and a share in his life, you don’t get to play for the other team anymore. You’re different. You’ve changed. You belong to God. You don’t get to be neutral anymore.
You don’t get to be Switzerland. In matters of life and death, you are forever on God’s team of life. That gives you the courage to stand in the places of darkness and despair with people because you know that the darkness does not win.
God’s work hasn’t changed over the millennia. God still hears the cries of the poor. God still responds to those who are oppressed because of their taskmasters. God continues to rescue those who are suffering. God still calls people like you and me to go and say to those in power, enough, let my people go. God still calls us to lead people through the waters that threaten to overwhelm us.
Walter Brueggemann, an Old Testament scholar whose work I love and find incredibly challenging, said that such claims sound like nonsense except for two things, first God has done it before. As we’ve seen in the Exodus story, God has delivered God’s people from death to life. It happened. Second, and here I’m quoting him.
Over time, it is the marginal, with no other troops, who in all kinds of emergencies have trusted in the strong arm of [the Lord] and have not been disappointed. The faith to which Israel is here summoned is not a faith the world easily believes and is not arrived at by common sense. It is trust against the evidence, risk in the face of the odds, that life can come even in the public domain, where the Lord governs.
In a world where the inexplicable and the terrifying still occurs with frightening regularity, we are called to join with God in making a way through the turbulent waters of life. When our brothers and sisters in this world are suffering, when the obstacles to change seem insurmountable, when the specter of death looms largest, we cling all the more tightly to God’s promises that in Jesus Christ God has claimed victory over the powers of this world, victory over evil, victory over the grave.
The way forward in this mess of life isn’t easy, and it certainly isn’t straightforward. But we move forward together, confident that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life, today and forevermore. Amen.
 Brueggemann, NIB 796