Old Testament: Exodus (14:19-31)
The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night. Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. 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 went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. 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. The Egyptians said, “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.” Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.” 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. But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.
The Response: The Songs of Moses and Miriam
God is my strength and my song *
and he has become my salvation.
Let me glorify this God of mine! *
Let me magnify this God of my ancestors!
For valiant in battle is the God *
whose holy name is The Lord.
The chariots and troops of Pharaoh *
were thrown into the sea;
even the handpicked commanders *
went down in the Red Sea waves.
The flood covered them over, *
and they sank into the depths like a stone.
Your right hand, so glorious in battle, *
your right hand, O Lord, shattered the foe.
In triumph you tumbled your adversaries; *
your fire consumed them like stubble.
The blast of your breath piled up the waters; *
the floods stood up like a towering wall;
in the very heart of the sea, *
the murky depths congealed.
“I will chase them and catch then!” crowed the enemy; *
I will plunder and fulfill my lust;
I will unsheathe my sharpened sword *
and destroy them by my own hand.”
Then you blew forth a mighty tempest *
and the sea swallowed them up
so that they plummeted like lead *
in the billows that brought you glory.
Who among the gods is mighty like you, O Lord? *
Who is sovereign and awesome like you,
a powerful worker of wonders?
Then Miriam the prophet, the sister of Aaron, *
raised a tambourine in her hand,
and all the women danced after her with their tambourines *
while Miriam led the song:
“Sing to the Lord, the Exalted One, *
who hurled horse and rider into the sea.”
The Epistle: Romans (14:1-12)
Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand. Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God. We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.” So then, each of us will be accountable to God.
The Gospel: Matthew (18:21-35)
Then Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.””
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
Sometimes, the scenes portrayed in our Sunday scripture selections are hard to imagine. Unfortunately, the picture that emerges from today’s first reading – a storm surge bringing death and destruction – is all too familiar right now, both to those in the southern part of our country who are suffering from the recent hurricanes and to those of us who watched their plight from a distance.
That account of the crossing of the Red Sea, together with the Song of Moses and Miriam that continues it, is a great way to enter into our new program year. These two selections from Exodus have a prominent place in the life of the church. It is the only reading that The Book of Common Prayer requires us to use every year in the Easter Vigil: the central celebration of the entire church year.
The exodus is the formative event in the life of Israel; and it is that narrative that the first Christians embraced in order to understand the significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The song that follows it allows the faithful of every age to enter mentally, emotionally, and spiritually into that great saving event.
Rabbi Everett Fox, in commenting on the key place that this song occupies in Exodus, makes this observation (The Five Books of Moses, page 334): “A poem [or ‘song’] is necessary at this point in the story, to provide emotional exultation and a needed break before the next phase of Israel’s journey in the book. The Song manages to focus the Israelites’ (the audience’s?) intense feelings in a way that neither the [Passover] ritual of Chaps. 12-13 nor even the semipoetic description of God’s miraculous intervention in Chap. 14 can do. Only poetry is capable of expressing the full range of the people’s emotions about what has happened.”
Poetry in the form of music is one of the most powerful forces in the world. It enters into us and permeates our consciousness in ways that we often do not perceive and becomes part of us. Those who care for elderly people suffering from advanced dementia can attest the way that some, who seem detached from and unaware of everything around them, will suddenly brighten when a well-loved song, maybe one that they knew from their youth, is played; and some, who otherwise no longer speak, even begin to sing along. Music lives deep within us.
Music is central to worship and to other rituals as well. What we sing becomes what we believe. That is why the selection of hymns is such an important task.
The late Louis Ball, a long-time professor of church music, gave this advice on what worship leaders should understand about hymns and other church music; he said, “Hold your Bible in your right hand. Hold your hymnal in your left hand. Now repeat after me: ‘These two books are the most important books in my ministry.’ If the Bible is the source of all theology and doctrine, then the hymnal is the distillation of that theology. The one who selects the hymns of the congregation selects its theology.”
Today, along with the resumption of Sunday School, we return to our regular Sunday worship, including the ministry of our choir. It is great to have them back. Their offering today is a hymn about a hymn: “As Newborn Stars Were Stirred to Song” from Wonder, Love, and Praise. Its topic, that greater hymn, is the song, the great story, of God’s saving work. The choir’s use of the hymn today will introduce it to us – which is very helpful since we will be singing that hymn together the next two Sundays.
Just as the music that we hear and love becomes part of us, so our intent throughout the year is to ensure that that greater story, that great song of God’s ongoing work of creation, becomes part of us as well. And a key part of that song is the assurance of God’s faithfulness as we face the inevitable uncertainty of life.
In the story of the exodus and the wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites constantly struggled with the uncertainties that they faced. Immediately before the readings that we heard today, Exodus describes the fear that the people experienced as they marched toward the Red Sea and caught sight of the Egyptian army following them (14:11-12): “They said to Moses, ‘Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, “Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians”? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.’”
The Israelites’ response would be repeated again and again throughout their journey whenever they found themselves moving away from the familiar and into the unknown. Theirs is a familiar human response, one with which I am sure we can identify.
We are constantly moving away from the familiar and into the unknown. That is part of the very nature of life. We know the past; we do not know the future. And some of the transitions from past to future bring a lot more uncertainty than others.
And it is at times like these, which all of us experience, that the Song of Moses and Miriam and the story that it recounts can echo within us. It assures us that, as we venture away from the familiar and the comfortable into an uncertain future, we do not go there alone. God might not go before us in a visible way, as a pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night, but God does go before us nonetheless. In fact, even though we often cannot foresee the future, there is one thing that we know about it; and that is the fact that God is already there, waiting for us and ready to welcome us into it.