Proper 19A/Ordinary 24A/Pentecost +13
September 11, 2011
Exodus 14: 19-31
Matthew 18: 21-35
“The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty … So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained” (Exod. 14: 23-25, 27-28)
You know, I feel for the Egyptians who were caught in the Red Sea (Sea of Reeds). I know I’m not supposed to, but I can’t help it. There they are, a bunch of cavalry and infantry grunts, led by lunatic generals into a swamp, to chase down a rogue band of ethnic minorities. They’re just doing their jobs, and I’m sure they would have rather been at home with their families. They think they have the Israelites in their sights … then the walls of water come crashing in. No one survives. The end.
I’m obsessed with being trapped in a flood right now because … well, I’m trapped in a flood. The rains from Hurricane Lee are sloshing around on ground that was already saturated from Hurricane Irene. I tried to go in to work this morning, but turned around and headed back home after spending 1½ hours to get one-third of the way there. All the major roads leading out of our little hamlet are either flooded out or are backed up for miles with cars. Frightening pictures are coming over the Internet of cars swallowed whole by sinkholes. With all our technology and Sports Utility Vehicles, we are trapped by water, much like the Egyptians. And the rain just is not stopping.
The Egyptians in this week’s Hebrew Bible reading were driven into the Sea of Reeds by rage and revenge. The Lord had just visited upon them the final Plague of the First-Born, where the first-born of every Egyptian – human or animal – died in the night. The houses of the Israelites, of course, were spared through the ritual of the Passover, or pesach. The first-born represented the Egyptians’ hopes for the future – their heirs, their best and brightest – all gone in one night. Rage and grief would have been understandable responses.
Ten years ago, we had our own visitation of unimaginable tragedy. I was working in downtown Washington, DC, two blocks from the White House, when the airliners struck the World Trade Center. I also lived in an apartment building from where the Pentagon was clearly visible, where we breathed in its acrid smoke and the ash collected on our window-sill. I had a friend who narrowly escaped the collapse of the second Twin Tower with his life. Overnight, thousands of our best and our brightest were taken from us, in the most horrific way possible. For weeks afterward, the bus that I took to work crawled by the violated Pentagon in a daily, funereal march that seemed interminable. People would begin to sob. Rage and grief were understandable responses.
This is not at all to say that 9-11 was God’s judgment on us – as the Plague of the First Born was on the Egyptians. Terrorism is an abomination. However, the problem with rage (however justifiable) is that it clouds judgment. Decisions made in a state of rage – individual or collective – tend to be very short-sighted at best, and tragic at worst. In our collective post 9-11 rage, we went to war, first in Iraq, then in Afghanistan. After ten years, our troops are still there, with the costs of war dragging our economy down like the mud of the Red Sea. We have already had one major recession and may be on the verge of another. We have lost thousands of our sons and daughters. We are stuck and we need a major change of course, because the walls of water are threatening to collapse at any moment.
The Gospel reading has some valuable things to say about dealing with the temptation to revenge or acting out. When a man asks Jesus if he should forgive his brother seven times, Jesus answers that he should forgive 77 (or in the King James Version, “seventy times seven”) times (Matt. 18:22)! (An accountant friend of mine who heard that particular Scripture asked me “Is that on a one-time or a rolling basis?”) The gist of it is, of course, that forgiveness is intended to be the “default setting”. There may be times when forgiveness is extremely difficult and we need to “give it up to God”, or (in the case of ongoing physical abuse) where – for the time being – it is completely inappropriate. But when we make rage our default setting, we find ourselves chasing the enemy far afield, into perilous territory that quickly becomes a “no-win” situation. Forgiveness is not just a Biblical mandate – it is ultimately in our best and highest interests to turn our energies away from hate and toward healing.
Let’s try making forgiveness the default option. Drive safely, and stay away from those flood-waters.