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Sermon and Reflections For Ordinary 24 - Proper 19 - Year A
Exodus 14:5-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
"Between The Devil and The Deep Blue Sea"
Barry Robinson

From time to time we feature "Keeping The Faith in Babylon: A Pastoral Resource For Christians In Exile", a weekly set of comments and reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary texts by Barry Robinson (Lion's Head, Ontario, Canada).   Barry describes his resource this way: "Keeping The Faith in Babylon... is a word of hope from a pastor in exile to those still serious about discipleship in a society (and, too often, a church) that has lost its way".   Contact Barry at to request samples and get further subscription information. Snail mail inquiries can be sent to Barry at the address at the bottom of this page.
A pastoral resource for Christians in Exile
Barry J. Robinson

Ordinary 24 - Proper 19 - Year A
Exodus 14:5-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
"Between The Devil and The Deep Blue Sea"

   "The Egyptians pursued them, all Pharaoh's horses and chariots, 
   his chariot drivers and his army; they overtook them camped by 
   the sea...  In great fear the Israelites cried out to the Lord. 
   They said to Moses, "Was it because there were no graves in
   Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?... 
   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."

There was once a man who was tormented by all kinds of evil and degrading
thoughts.  Night and day they would come to him. Nothing he tried would 
vanquish them.  In desperation, he sought out a local holy man and 
confessed his dilemma.

"Nothing I do seems to stop these terrible thoughts from coming into my
head, Master.  I know I am in danger.  What should I do?"

The holy man took his visitor outside and said, "Open your shirt and take
hold of the wind."

The man answered, "But I cannot take hold of the wind!"

The holy man said, "If you cannot do that, neither can you prevent such
thoughts from coming in.  But what you can do is to stand firm against 


We have all been there. For Moses and the Israelites it came immediately 
after that grace-filled moment when they realized that, after all those 
years of bondage to their Egyptian masters, day after day of meaningless
drudgery without end and no hope whatsoever that things would ever 
change, freedom was within their grasp.  Even tight-fisted old Pharaoh 
had crumpled before that terrible last night of death.

"All right, go!  You and the Israelites, leave me and my people in peace! 
Take what is yours and be gone!" he had said to Moses.  It was the chance
everyone had been waiting for.

The text before us fairly bursts with descriptive power.  You can almost 
hear the Egyptian parents, even Pharaoh and his family wailing laments 
over their lost children, hear Moses and his lieutenants jostling and 
exhorting the people.

"This is it! Let's go! Let's go! Fast, faster!"

The race against time had started.  It was late, later than anybody 
thought.  They had one night in which to break the vise that had held them 
for almost four hundred years, one night to escape a prison so familiar 
that it had become like home to them.  It was now or never.  Everybody 
knew that by tomorrow Pharaoh would change his mind.  Tomorrow he would 
come to his senses and realize what he had done.  Tomorrow would be too 
late.  Tonight was the night.

You can almost see the people running breathlessly, grabbing whatever 
they could, without even glancing backwards.  There was no time for that. 
They had to make for the sea. God knows, the sea was their only chance. 
Not the straight road to Canaan, which would have taken them there 
faster, because that would have meant having to get past six (count them), 
six, heavily-armed Egyptian outposts.  "The way to the land of the
Philistines", it was dubbed in ancient times, the highway to the Promised 
Land.  The Egyptians traveled it regularly.  Had constructed it to 
withstand the pounding of their chariots.  They would have been run down 
like animals.

No, their only hope of survival was the wilderness of Sinai; and to get 
there meant going by the sea.  What they would do when they got there 
nobody knew, not even Moses.  All they knew was that it was their only 
chance.  The devil or the deep blue sea.  Not much of a choice, but a 
choice nonetheless.

Then, finally, after a night of running in the dark, that long, straggly 
band came to an abrupt halt.  There was the end right in front of them. 
The sea was there waiting; and already they could see the dust of 
Pharaoh's chariots behind them.  Terrified, they clung to the banks 
while Moses' leaders urged them on.

"Come on!  Into the water!  Into the water!  God will lead the way!"

Terrified and panicking, the people did as they asked.

When, suddenly, Moses ordered everyone to halt.

"Wait a moment!" he said.  "Think about what you are doing! Enter the sea, 
not as frightened fugitives, but as free men and women!  No matter what
happens, Pharaoh cannot take that away from you!"

It was then that the Israelites advanced on the sea.  Moses turned to God 
with a prayer; but God quickly reminded him that this was not a good time!
"Tell the people to hurry!"  And the people, united as never before, swept
ahead and crossed the sea, which drew back just enough to let them through. 
So awesome was the moment, so charged with faith and hope that even the 
most humble saw within it more of God's mystery than even Elijah would see
centuries later.

Then, when they reached the other side, Moses was so moved by what had 
happened that he burst into song.  The old stutterer, the old pain in the 
neck who couldn't put two words together to shake a stick suddenly became 
a minstrel!  Well, they say that stutterers have difficulty speaking, but 
not in singing.  But Moses was the first; and the Hasidic explanation is 
that it was that the people had faith in God and Moses that did it.  For 
the first time since Moses had started urging them to get out of Egypt, 
they had rallied around as one.  That was why he was able to sing. 

Because it was like the people were singing through him.

It is the thing to remember, it seems to me, about this most famous of all 
the stories in the Bible.  The exodus was no tiny band of fugitives 
sneaking out unnoticed, but indeed a nation defiantly striding out, 
flaunting their freedom before a handcuffed pharaoh.  But, that moment of
decision came just as it always comes when we realize the risk our 
freedom entails.  It is not about whether we get out of Egypt but how we 
get out. 

I have added my own spin to the story, of course, just as many later 
biblical writers added theirs.  Just as you will add yours.  No matter how 
we tell the story, trust was the issue.  Would the people trust God and 
trust that deepest place within themselves that allowed them to have faith 
in God once the moment their defiance melted away?  This was no Patrick 
Henry moment.  "Give me liberty or give me death!"  They knew that there 
would be no battle.  Pharaoh was a formidable foe.  They could no more stop 
him than they could stop the wind.

What they could do was the only thing that Moses asked them to do.

    "Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that 
    the Lord will accomplish for you today..."

There comes a moment of unearthly silence when we stand firm in our resolve
between the devil and the deep blue sea, a moment when we must wait upon 
our own convictions and to see what God will do because it is the only thing 
we can do.


A few days ago I came across a note from a friend, an Episcopalian priest 
who had been run out of his parish by its leaders, the punishment voted 
upon him as a result of having faithfully done his job.  "Your sermons are 
too political.  We don't want to hear what's wrong with the world.  And we
don't want to hear what's wrong with us.  Just tell us God loves us and 
leave it at that," they told him.  When he couldn't leave it at that - 
anymore than Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. or Jesus could have before 
him, they insisted he resign.  And his bishop supported their decision.

Being faithful to the gospel, having faith in himself meant heading for the
Red Sea, not knowing what would happen next.  Standing firm for the man he 
was and for the God who had called him - between the devil and the deep 
blue sea.

There comes a time for all of us when we must find out whether we have what 
it takes.  That moment when we break free of the oppressive circumstances 
that have held us captive for so long and stand before an uncertain future.
When matching the enemy blow for blow is not an option.  When no one can see 
a way for us to the other side.  When we must simply reach down within
ourselves and find that source of fearlessness, dignity and integrity.  The
place that literally in-spires us to be more than we know.

It is then that a path opens before us in recognition of that which we were
prepared to believe, a way out of what seemed an impossible dilemma into 
that new day that God alone can provide.


Exodus 14:5-31 - Since the Lectionary at no time asks us to 
read the entire story of the Exodus, we have included verses 5-18 
to assist us in capturing some of the drama of the moment.  As with 
much of the Exodus story, we are dealing with a stylized reflection 
of an historical event cast in a liturgical setting.  The author's 
purpose was to encourage us to reflect on situations of our own similar 
to the dilemma Israel faced at the barrier of the Red Sea, where trust 
in God to make possible the impossible is what is most at issue.

   1.	When one considers the ultimate tragedy of this story, what 
   is the moral dilemma in telling it for all people of faith?
   2.	How do you feel about the way the storyteller of Exodus 
   portrays the Israelites and about the way this week's reflection 
   adds to or diminishes the story?
   3.	When have you or someone close to you stood between "the 
   devil and the deep blue sea"?

Romans 14:1-12 - It is a perennial problem, it seems, for any 
Christian community: the tendency of the self-righteous to make their 
own convictions the measure of the validity of the convictions of all 
others.  Paul offers two insights with which a community must approach 
the problem.  Tolerance is a necessary practice among Christians 
because there will be different understandings of Jesus' vision.  If 
someone's particular practice or lifestyle honours God, it should be 

   1.	Who might the weak and the strong be to whom Paul refers?
   2.	If God's grace is precisely that God accepts the 
   unacceptable, an understanding that Paul affirms over and over in 
   his epistles, what does he mean by judgment in this passage?
   3.	When has intolerance been a problem in your community?
   4.	How would Paul's advice have shed light on the controversy?

Matthew 18:21-35 - Matthew's passage is a relatively long 
complex intended to deal with the problem of backsliders and errant 
behaviour.  In the first instance, Jesus makes clear to Peter that we 
must practice unlimited forgiveness.  It is a clear repudiation of 
Lamech's boast to his wives in Genesis 4:24.  In the second instance, 
Matthew offers a parable, the kind of ambiguous, twisted tale that 
Jesus might have told and that often left his readers twisting in the 
wind.  Who should we try to be more like: the one who forgives 
magnanimously or the one who refuses?  Matthew, like many in Jesus' 
audience, appears to be misled.  He takes the ending to correspond with 
the divine perspective; but Jesus just before this has shown that 
forgiveness cannot be compromised without undesirable consequences.

   1.	What kind of problem seems to be behind Peter's question?
   2.	What dilemma is the audience left with at the end of Jesus' 
   3.	What is wrong with Matthew's conclusion to Jesus' parable: 
   that God won't forgive you if you don't forgive your fellow human 
   4.	In what way is Matthew's treatment of Jesus' attitude toward
   forgiveness a mirror image of the error Christians continue to make?

HYMN  453  Out of Deep Unordered Water  (Voices United )
Keeping the Faith in Babylon:
A pastoral resource for Christians in Exile
A publication of FERNSTONE:
Transformative Resources for the Human Journey
All rights reserved. Please do not copy.
Transformative Resources for the Human Journey
R.R. 4, Lion's Head, Ontario Canada N0H 1W0
Phone/Fax: (519) 592-4551

copyright - Barry Robinson 2002, 2005
            page by Rev. Richard J. Fairchild - Spirit Networks, 2002 - 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these sermons.

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