Crossing the Red Sea by Laura James
For the past two weeks, the Old Testament reading for Sunday has been taken from Exodus. We've been following the Israelites as they move from slavery to freedom, from the leeks and onions of Egypt to the "what's this?"  (manna) God provides in the wilderness. There's been a lot of complaining along the way - you've brought us here to die! they grumble to Moses at one point. And from our perspective, it might be easy to beat up on the Israelites, who seem to forget as soon as their sandals are dry how God miraculously took care of the Egyptian army hot on their tails. Easy that is, until you slow down and get into those sandals.

Yes, it's true that God did miraculously snatch them away from their bondage to Pharoah, even filling their sacks with precious plunder, but the result of that freedom is that they are now walking in unfamiliar territory, led by a strange God who shows up in fire and clouds. Life was dependable in Egypt. You knew what the days entailed, how to navigate the landscape, where to buy those leeks and onions. But out here in the desert? Where does one get water for your grumpy children? not to mention your herd of sheep or cows?

Freedom can be scary. And the fear of the unknown can keep us from taking the steps we believe would be good for us. Especially if we can't imagine what it might look like on the other side. Here I think I start to empathize with the Israelites. God is asking them to become a nation in a place they've never seen. The questions must have been relentless. And when it came down to the wire they refused to enter into God's desire for them. They couldn't embrace who God wanted them to be nor the path he proposed for them to follow.

Freedom requires a change of perspective. The Gospel reading (Matthew 21:23-32) shows us that those who are immersed in one paradigm can find it almost impossible to switch allegiance to another. The chief priests and elders of Jesus' day were not pleased with his teaching. Their interpretation of the law was comfortable, defendable, and held them hostage from the grace Jesus came to give. His astonishing comment that the tax collectors and prostitutes were entering freedom ahead of them would have been incomprehensible and deeply offensive. But the tax collectors and prostitutes knew that their lives weren't getting better without a major change in who was calling the shots. A life based on love and mercy toward self and others offered them a hope and a future.

Embarking on a journey toward love can seem daunting, especially if you leave a lot of rules and regulations behind. For the Israelites, the new way of living required that they check in every day with the pillar of cloud and fire that was leading them to the promised land. In the Epistle reading (Philippians 2:1-13) Paul tells us we have our own version of the pillar of cloud in the presence of the Holy Spirit whose light and guidance is no longer external, but internal. Since we are partnering with the divine (and taking new responsibility for the part we play), we are to embark upon this life with "fear and trembling" but also with a strong degree of confidence. "God is at work in us, enabling us both to will and to work for his good pleasure."

God desires our freedom, just as much He desired the freedom of the Israelites whose children (a generation born into freedom) eventually made it to Canaan. That is, in a nutshell, his "good pleasure." It can be scary, for we don't exactly know what it will look like. But it is His idea, and He not only knows the destination, but will be there to guide us along the way.

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