The song of two Marys
When I was a child of about 10 or 11, I went along with my best friend, her mother, and their dog, Phoebe, to the local Woolco department store so that my friend’s mom could pick up a few items she needed. We walked there together, and it was my job, when my friend and her mother went into the store, to hold onto the Phoebe’s leash and wait for them outside.
A simple job – just hold onto the leash, and don’t let Phoebe go to run among the cars in the parking lot. Well somewhere in the middle of this rather boring task and longer-than-expected wait, it occurred to me that it might be fun to see, if I crawled into one of the shopping carts left outside the store doors, whether Phoebe might pull me along like a horse and chariot.
The carts were parked about 20 metres or so away from the front doors of the store, and I pulled a rather hesitant Phoebe along with me, and climbed into one of the carts. Phoebe just sat there looking at me curiously.
Then my friend and her mother came out of the store. At the sight of her owners, Phoebe took off towards them, dragging the shopping cart, with me crouched in it, along with her. At first it was quite slow, and I was quite delighted, but soon Phoebe picked up speed and the rickety shopping cart, hardly a stable chariot, began bumping and tipping threateningly. I couldn’t stop. I held tightly to the leash, unable to get out of the cart, and for some reason determined not to let go. When my friend’s mother saw her dog barreling towards her with a shopping cart containing her daughter’s friend careening behind, she stared in horror. ‘Let go!’ she yelled at me.
I didn’t let go.
Now this story ended well – Phoebe was soon with her beloved owners, and my friend’s mother grabbed the shopping cart and stopped it before I was flung off the edge of the sidewalk and into the parking lot. I suffered nothing more than the humiliation and embarrassment of a really stupid idea.
If only the Egyptian army and their chariots had fared as well.
Our story from Exodus today is but a small part of the larger saga in which God rescues the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. This saga of God’s salvation of the Israelites from slavery to freedom is a foundational story for the Jewish people, and one which, not surprisingly, echoes and threads its way throughout the New Testament stories and the early church’s understanding of God’s salvation in Jesus.
In contemporary times, the exodus has served as inspiration and model for many groups, from early Protestant settlers to North America, to African-Americans striving for freedom and civil rights; from forming the backbone of a host of Latin American liberation theologies, to religious motivation for the establishment of the modern state of Israel. This is a story with many layers, many possible trajectories, and many, many concrete, historical outcomes – some of them inspiring, some of them tragic, and many of them unsettling and bloody. Much like their origin.
Exodus is not an easy story to hear, especially for ears trained to hear the Word of God as a Word of Peace. There is no way around this one – no fancy biblical footwork that I can play this time – to remake Exodus into a peaceful story or the God of the exodus into a non-violent God. Exodus is pervasively and disturbingly violent, with the Pharaohs and God being the most violent actors. The crossing of the Red Sea that we heard this morning is but the end of chapter upon chapter of increasingly horrific plagues.
As much as we might be uncomfortable with some of the ways the ancient writers imagined God, to too easily brush this story aside is to miss the ways the Word of God might speak to us and our world today. For although this saga has bolstered both movements of liberation and crusades of colonialism, in this story we are presented with a portrait of empire from the perspective of the oppressed.
As Christians living within, and benefiting from, the modern empire of global capitalism, honestly addressing this violence in scripture can help us to address the structural violence in our own culture; to know and recognize our patterns of addiction to empire and our refusal to let go of the reigns of our precarious chariots.
Because this story is so central to and within the Bible, it is normal for Christians to situate ourselves in this story as heirs of the Israelites – positioning ourselves among the Hebrew slaves over against the tyranny of Pharoah. However, speaking personally, as a white, non-Indigenous Canadian, my heritage has much more in common with the Egyptians. Sure my Mennonite ancestors in Europe and then Russia experienced violence and oppression, but there is no denying that their suffering and plight was taken up into the colonial goals of empire as it spread across North America. Furthermore, today there can be no doubt that I am one of the benefactors of this colonial violence and racism.
To read this Exodus story from this location, a location many of you share with me, is to acknowledge our place among the oppressors, the ones holding the reins of the chariots even if we feel powerless to get off, and unsure of what it would mean to let go. We are aware that our way of life is predicated on structural and military violence, the widening gap between rich and poor, and environmental destruction that threatens much of life on the planet, yet we are either unable or unwilling to stop.
And on this side of the exodus, we see God – who hears the pains of the oppressed and enslaved and actively sets out to liberate them – as a God who is fundamentally at odds with the very systems and structures that ensure our comfort, convenience, and affluence. The fact that we are good, loving people whose lives might also be full of suffering, struggle, loss and pain does not negate the fact that this story proclaims that God breaks the chains of oppression, and in so far as we are holding onto the other end of that chain, that liberation will cost us.
The first Mary whose song we heard this morning – Miriam, the sister of Moses – sings praises to her God who has saved her and her people from brutal slavery. The violence that happened to the Egyptians is celebrated as God’s triumph over evil. It is very difficult to hear the songs of jubilation that the oppressed sing when they see our destruction as necessary for their freedom. Had there been video and internet in the days of Moses and Miriam I can imagine families in Egypt watching in abject horror the tambourines and dancing that followed the annihilation of their beloved fathers and sons in the sea. Do you remember the cries of disbelief and accusation of barbarism as video clips of Arab populations cheering and celebrating in the aftermath of 9/11 went viral? The belief that God acts to destroy one people for the sake of another infuses the stories and histories of all the monotheistic traditions – the history of nations that embrace Christianity being the biggest perpetrators. It is right that we question this view of God, even as it appears in our sacred texts.
Over the past 2000 years of Jewish engagement with this text, rabbis and other students of the Torah have struggled, just as we do, with the violence of God which resulted in the death of thousands of Egyptians. In one such Jewish commentary on the song of Miriam, it is suggested that God reacts against the singing, crying out “How can you sing as the works of my hand are drowning in the sea?”
Here I can imagine God, watching in horror as the Israelites make their way to freedom on dry ground, the waters close behind them, and the Egyptians rushing desperately forward, clinging to the chain that God is breaking.
“Let go!” God cries. “Let go! Let go!” But they don’t let go.
And Miriam and the Israelites sing.
And the second Mary, singing her song over a thousand years later, joins her ancestor Miriam in rejoicing in God her saviour, echoing the exodus message that God’s arm is strong and takes down the mighty from their thrones – lifting up the poor and hungry. Jesus – whose very name in Hebrew is Yehoshuah, which means ‘God is my salvation’ – becomes woven into this story of liberation such that he claims for himself the words of Isaiah “God has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed.” (Luke 4:18, cf Is.61:1)
God is our salvation – this is the central message of the exodus, indeed the whole of scripture. And this salvation, the exodus (and Mary, and Jesus!) insists, includes earthly liberation, freedom, justice, and dignity for the oppressed of this world. This IS good news for the poor and oppressed, but what of us who are the rich and the benefactors of their oppression? Are we left only to listen to the songs of the freed as we drown in our greed and refusal to change? Is it good news for us?
Yes, of course, although not perhaps in the way we might first expect.
The good news of the salvation offered by God is that it IS for all – such that we are all invited to participate in the salvation of God through solidarity with one another while we, as the Apostle Paul says in his letter to the Philippians, “work out our salvation in fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you (plural – the community) to both will and work for God’s good pleasure”. (Phil 2:12-13). We participate in the salvation of God by letting God act in and through us both in the breaking of the chains that oppress, and also in the discovery of new ways of living in the new-found freedom.
Frederick Douglass – former American slave and civil rights leader wrote: “no man can put a chain about the neck of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck.” Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire contends that in order to achieve true liberation, the oppressors and the oppressed must join together in communion towards a common goal: humanity. The abiding truth of the Exodus account is that aligning ourselves with “God our salvation” means aligning ourselves with the work of liberation and life for all beings – which necessarily depends upon the rescue and release of those who are enslaved, oppressed, commodified and vulnerable to abuse.
The songs of our two Mary’s sing in celebration of that hope. What might our song be?
Last week during sharing time we considered just that question. Years ago our church saw a need in the people of victims and offenders of violent crimes. This community acted, and a new ministry took root and is flourishing. Together I am confident that we can hear the call of God anew to join in the breaking of chains of destruction and oppression – there is rattling all around us.
Meister Eckhart, 13th C mystic and theologian spoke of it this way: the most important person is the one right in front of you. The most important work is the work of love. The most important time is now.
I conclude with a song of another daughter of God – Lee Maracle, from the Stó:lō nation, who are host to our own gathering on their traditional territory today. Her ancestors are part of the cloud of witnesses that looks on and watches just how we will work out this salvation God has so graciously given to us. She writes:
I am your witness
Inspired by the earth’s response to her desecration
The waters will cleanse the earth;
Hurricanes will rearrange rivers
Earthquakes will object, but the earth will do her duty
And we will too.
We will all have to face ourselves
And our sense of justice
We will need to nourish our imagination
And summon our souls, our hearts and our minds to a justice,
Which includes all life – together
So I call you
Come, hear this song,
Sing with me.
(found in ‘Buffalo Shout, Salmon Cry’, p138)