For two summers while in college, I worked for the Arkansas Highway Department on a district bridge crew. Among other things, our job was to repair bridges on state highways across a several county area. Sometimes the bridge’s pylons had sunk over time into the creek or river bed causing the bridge to bow in the middle, in which case we would work on scaffolding under the bridge to jack up the span. Other times, the bridge bed itself was rotten, and we’d jackhammer the old paving and replace it with new. During those summers I learned to use an acetylene torch, a concrete saw, a jackhammer, and a sandblaster. But as the summer college kid on the crew, most days I was assigned the one job no one else ever wanted: flagging.
On lonely Arkansas highways, people tend to speed, and in order to keep the bridge crew safe, the flagger needed plenty of distance to wave drivers down before they reached the bridge. The flagger was often placed down the highway by himself fifty yards away from the crew. We worked four-day weeks, ten-hour days, which is a long time to be by oneself with nothing for company but a red flag on a stick. It was also easy for the rest of the crew to forget about the nineteen-year-old down the road. With the sun beating down and the heat reflecting menacingly off the asphalt—that same pavement so hot that it was gummy on my boots—there were many days when I became near-delirious. Once I wrote in my head the great American novel, only to realize when I attempted to put it on paper that evening that it was so much brain mush. For I while I pretended that I was a superhero and that the flag was my power, with the ability to stop cars in their tracks. Mostly, my mind wandered self-pityingly. I wondered how it was that a good college boy had ended up there, how my crewmates could so callously put me on that stretch of road and forget about me, why they got to work the jackhammer while I had to flag. It was a wilderness, to be sure.
Whenever I was at my very lowest, about to fall over from the heat or drift into darkest thoughts, almost like clockwork I would look toward the bridge and see someone shuffling toward me through the ambient waves of heat. It was always Greig Lynn, a fellow member of the bridge crew and a member of the church in which I was raised, moving toward me with a cup of cold water. (Under Greig’s arm was always also a thermos of steaming hot coffee, which he inexplicably preferred to drink even in hundred-degree days.) Greig would hand me the water, which slaked my thirst and soothed my parched throat, but he’d also stand there for few minutes and offer me company and words of encouragement. Mostly, Greig spoke to me as a friend and colleague. He didn’t indict my college-boy whining. He didn’t tell me I should toughen up. Greig was (and is) a deep thinker, and he’d pull me from my delirium into grounded conversation about God, the universe, and everything. Not to sound grandiose, but in a way during those summers Greig saved me, with water and words of encouragement.
In Exodus today, the Israelites are languishing in the wilderness. Their own distress and delirium are so acute that they’ve redefined in their imaginations what their experience in Egypt was like. It may have been abject slavery, but at least it was known. They have even forgotten how God so recently moved them from death to new life through the waters of the Red Sea. Now they wander, and they thirst in body, mind, and soul. They quarrel with their thoughts, with Moses, and with God, and they express their frustration with a cry, “Give us something to drink!”
And, as always, God responds. God does not forget the Israelites. God does not leave them alone in the wilderness. God does not castigate their complaining. God responds to their thirst with water and word. God instructs Moses to take his staff and strike a rock at Mount Horeb. When Moses does so, water gushes forth, and the people are saved.
On the face of it, the juxtaposition of the existential plight of the Israelites in the Sinai wilderness with my own youthful distress on the Arkansas highway may seem hyperbolic. But only from an outsider’s point of view. From the inside, we each know that our personal experiences of isolation, abandonment, delirium, and fear feel to us like existential threats. The ground beneath our feet becomes gummy and less-than-solid. The heat causes us to lose our orientation. We grumble and feel maligned. We find ourselves in the wilderness, begging for spiritual water to relieve our parched thirst.
We also know in our lives the life-saving relief that comes when spiritual water is given. Sometimes that appears directly from God, in a moment of clarity as we pray, or worship, or find ourselves caught by blessed surprise by the felt presence of the divine. Sometimes—oftentimes—small salvations come from a fellow member of the Body of Christ, a sister or brother who shows up at just the right moment, with water and words of encouragement.
It is in those encounters with sweet relief when we are reminded that we are not alone, either in our experiences of the wilderness or the Promised Land. It is then, in my life, that I utter as a reflex the words of the First Song of Isaiah: “Surely it is God who saves me! I will trust in God and not be afraid. For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense, and he will be my Savior. Therefore you shall draw waters with rejoicing from the springs of salvation… [and] sing the praises of the Lord, for God has done great things, and this is known in all the world.”
This is the kick-off Sunday for our Every Member Canvass—the annual stewardship campaign that funds our ministry budget for the coming year—and the First Song of Isaiah is our EMC theme. That the lectionary provides us with the story of the Israelites and their thirst today of all days is a kind of “God moment.”
At the end of the day, making a pledge commitment to the Cathedral is not the same, in kind or degree, to our generosity expressed in other ways, to our alma maters, or museums, or the American Heart Association, or any other very worthy recipient. Our giving to the Cathedral is our way of providing water and word to those in need. Each time a message of comfort and hope comes from Christ Church, and each time we provide spiritual water to those in the wilderness and literal water to those who live on the street, we are as Moses striking the rock at Horeb, transforming deserts into oases for someone—and knowing all the time that someday that someone in need will be us.
In other words, our giving is the provision of water and words of encouragement to those in need, and our giving is also the way we respond in joy to the water and words that have been given, sometimes miraculously, to us. A pledge is the physical, sacramental expression of the First Song of Isaiah. A pledge to the ministry of this sacred and life-giving place is a way to say, “Surely it is God who saves me! I will trust in God and not be afraid. For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense, and he will be my Savior.” It is one way that we “draw waters with rejoicing from the springs of salvation…[and] sing the praises of the Lord” who has, indeed, done great things.
This year’s EMC is so important, more crucial than in any year of my tenure here. How has this place sustained you in the wilderness of your life? How has it brought forth water from stone? I have made my pledge. All of your vestry members have made their pledges as well. Today at 2 p.m. we launch the Every Member Canvass, and I pray you will join us and support the Cathedral, too.
You can pledge to the EMC here: http://www.christchurchcathedral.org/emc/
In Exodus today, after multiple failed negotiations, Moses and the Israelites are fleeing Egypt. After numerous missed opportunities to let them go freely—and with each opportunity bringing some fresh plague down onto his own head and his own people—Pharaoh now sends an army in pursuit of them. The Israelites are on foot; the Egyptians ride in chariots. What little lead Moses had on Pharaoh is quickly evaporating. As night falls, the Israelites reach the sea, which to them could have seemed sure death. Drown, or be butchered by Pharaoh’s army. “Do you take your poison as strychnine or arsenic?” they might as well have been asked. But Moses looks out at the expanse of water and sees something that others don’t see. Exodus says, “Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, [and] the Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided.” The Israelites are able to cross the seabed in safety, but when the Egyptians arrive and venture from the bank, we read “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.”
Often with this story, the preoccupation is with the “how” of the event. In 1956, Cecile B. DeMille famously depicted it as a laws-of-nature-suspending miracle in stunning technicolor in The Ten Commandments. I can personally attest that a present-day Branson, Missouri theatrical production does the same and could give Cecile B. DeMille a run for his money!
In 2014, by contrast, Dr. Bruce Parker, the chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, published a tantalizing naturalistic description of how Moses could have pulled off his escape using tide schedules and an intimate knowledge of the north end of the Red Sea.[i] I’m fine with either explanation, actually, because I don’t think the “how” is what’s important to the story. What’s important is that in front of the Israelites and the Egyptians was the same Red Sea, the same murky deep, the same sure death. But it proved to be death for only one. For the other, it turned out to be salvation and life.
What makes the difference? Diving more deeply into Exodus (to extend the watery allusion), I think the key is found in the differing spiritual/psychological make ups of Moses and Pharaoh, and—spoiler alert—I think their analysis is key to imagining how we might deal with the fathomless deeps in our own lives.
Moses, as we learned two Sundays ago when he encountered God in the burning bush, is someone who has experienced more than his share of challenge and hardship, some of which has been done to him, and some of which has admittedly been his own doing. In some ways, Moses’ life experience has given him strength, but in other ways it has stripped his confidence and wracked him with self-doubt. All that is to say, Moses is no superhero. He is as flawed and fallible as you and me. And yet, Moses encounters God in the burning bush even as he hides out as a wanted man in the wilderness, as we said two weeks ago, because he pauses and attunes his attention. He is open, even in distress, to self-discovery, to revelation, to new avenues, to hope. And so, when he reaches the Red Sea, he is able somehow to see, instead of a watery grave, a miraculous path to new life.
Pharaoh, on the other hand, is spiritually and psychologically wired very differently. What is the primary descriptor of Pharaoh’s inner state? Twelve times Exodus speaks of the hardness of Pharaoh’s heart.
For those who study Exodus, Pharaoh’s hardened heart is challenging, because several of those twelve mentions seem to say that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, suggesting that Pharaoh had no choice in the matter, that his spiritual psychology was imposed upon him entirely. But biblical scholar Timothy Mackie explains that the Hebrew verb “to harden” is a tricky one.[ii] It is technically a “stative” verb, and it doesn’t clearly indicate who is performing the action. And so, our English bible translations do their best to translate it faithfully in context. Sometimes that results in saying that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. Sometimes it says instead that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. The ambiguity is, I think, both theologically intentional and psychologically sophisticated. It comports with our experience of reality. We know what it means to engage the world with a hardened heart. We’ve all done it at some time or another. It means, inwardly, to quit being introspective; no longer to question our own motives; finally to decide that we are justified, come what may. It means, outwardly, to exhaust our empathy and compassion, but also to extinguish our wonder and openness to novelty in the world around us. When we lapse into this way of being—when our hearts harden—it does seem that to some extent we have done it to ourselves and to another extent it has simply happened to us.
Even in the direst circumstances, Moses remains attuned to encounter wonder, hope, God. Even in the comfort of his palace, Pharaoh’s heart hardens. The distinction makes every difference. And only for one is the ominous sea freedom, a pathway to new life.
These days, for many the entire world seems a murky depth from which there is no escape. For each threat we successfully evade, another awaits ahead, ready to drown us. Illness, economic uncertainty, political vitriol, civil strife, not to mention the travails we face individually—each of these can harden our hearts just a little more, until we become dulled, cynical, and closed to wonder. When that happens, the illness becomes just a disease rather than a testing of our mettle and a process of learning not to cling, the job loss becomes only a disaster of which I am the victim instead of an opening of new vistas, the family upheaval becomes nothing but broken relationship instead of an opportunity for growth in understanding.
But our hearts need not harden. The sea need not be a tomb. Every transformation is a kind of death, but if we remain, in faith, open to the God who lives within us and works in the world around us, if we remind ourselves daily that our God is one of wonder and possibility, then every death—from the smallest challenge to the actual transition at the end of life—becomes as the Red Sea, a parting of what was so that something new and wondrous can be born. In your life and in mine.
Schadenfreude. When the history is written about our time, it may be one of the terms most used to describe our culture. The German language is so good at packing a surplus of meaning into a single word, and schadenfreude does just that. It means “to take pleasure in the misfortune of others.” And my goodness, in our contemporary world we are good at that. Like piranha, we await word of the misstep of someone, and as soon as the news is received the feeding frenzy begins. It need not matter if the unfortunate person is culpable or not, or even friend or foe. We live in what has been termed an “outrage culture,” and we are all too ready to shake our heads with a satisfied grimace and an “I knew it would happen sooner or later” sentiment when even our own former heroes fall from grace.
Biblical scholar and Anglican bishop N.T. Wright says that we exercise schadenfreude’s opposite, too. Namely, we “murmur at one another’s forgiveness.” Somehow, it has become not enough that our culture revels in both the justified and unjustified misfortune of other people. Many also believe that condemnation should be eternal, that, for offenses of any degree, there should be no redemption, that the desert into which people are cast should span the globe and their lives.
Where have we gotten these ideas? Where does our culture’s schadenfreude originate? Certainly not in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For Jesus, undeserved misfortune is always an opportunity for healing. When circumstances beyond one’s control cause someone to be cast out, unable to provide for one’s family, or in otherwise dire straits, Jesus always steps in as advocate for the voiceless.
But Jesus goes much further. When he encounters those who are culpable, who deserve to fall from grace—whether that be Zacchaeus the defrauder or the murderous bandit next to Jesus on the cross—rather than levying satisfied words of condemnation, Jesus offers avenues of grace. He knows that even willful wrongdoing includes a confused darkness in the soul, and he provides a ribbon of light that leads back to life for those who will follow it.
Perhaps Jesus most frequently uttered phrase is “Your sins are forgiven.” Jesus doesn’t offer cheap grace; his redemption always requires acknowledgement of truth and amendment of life. But Jesus never, ever expresses schadenfreude, and he never withholds forgiveness.
Of course, like Jesus, we must always seek justice. We are called to be the vanguard of God’s kingdom and to labor and live in the world in such a way that God’s kingdom breaks into reality. But schadenfreude is never kingdom work. Journalist Nicholas Kristoff asked in a column several years ago, “Are we in the heating business or the lighting business?” There is already plenty of metaphorical heat in our world. We surely don’t need to add to it. There is not, however, enough light.
There is a story about a young Robert Louis Stevenson, who was a sickly child. One evening in the 1850s Stevenson sat at the window and watched the lamplighter make his way down his London street lighting the gas lamps at murky dusk. “What are you doing?” asked Stevenson’s grandmother. And with bated breath the future poet replied, “I’m watching a man punch holes in the darkness.”
Let us be as the lamplighter: not taking pleasure at others’ misfortune, not withholding forgiveness from those who have fallen, and not injecting heat into an already overheated world. Let us seek justice, and take joy in redemption, and punch holes in the darkness so that our world shines a little brighter.