Reversal of Fortune

Mary Donovan Turner
September 9, 2008

The Dean's Chapel of the new school year presided over the blessing of first-year students to PSR.

Exodus 15: 20–21

Many, many people, even if they have never been an active participant in the life of Jewish or Christian communities, know something about the Exodus story. They might be familiar with the narrative thread of the story, or an image, or one of the characters. The story with all of its sights and sounds is a feast for the senses.

Moses is born and put in a basket in the river for safekeeping.

His sister watches him carefully from the shoreline.

The midwives save him at the moment of birth.

The Israelites call out from their oppressions in Egypt.

A bush in the wilderness bursts into flame and the voice of God calls out to Moses. Deliver my people from their despair.

Moses in conversation with Pharaoh. Then the plagues...
Water turned to blood
Diseased Livestock
Death of the firstborn

And then the grand finale – the parting of the Sea so that the Israelites can safely cross to the other side, the waves magically parting.

The power of God through their leader Moses has made a way.

The Sea safely crossed, the Israelites begin a long and winding wilderness journey, but not until they ritualize their deliverance.

Not until they find the words that give praise to the God who has helped them.

Not until they find poetry and song to retell the story; fashion it in a way that it can be remembered for the generations to follow them.

Not until they embody the experience and sing it out, dance it out.

The ritual helps them remember what they have overcome; it strengthens them for the unknown journey that it is come. It is in many ways like the blessing of the new students that have come to be with us at PSR; this morning we will give thanks for what has brought them here and the ways they have overcome the obstacles to getting here. We will also ask God to bless their journey ahead.

There are two songs recounting the story of deliverance and giving praise to Yahweh. One is sung by Moses. It is 18 verses long. It tells the story of not only what has happened but also what is going to happen, which makes you wonder who wrote it and when. And then, there is the shorter song sung by Miriam and the women of the community.

“Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.”

This little fragment about Miriam is only two verses out of the 409 verses of the Exodus story, but the questions it spawns are never ending. Why is it here? It echoes the first line of Moses’ much longer song, though not perfectly. Is Miriam’s song derived from the song of Moses, just copied from the song of Moses? And if it is, is it deficient? Or, did the remembrance that Miriam sang a song of victory, prompt an editor of long ago to put words in the mouth of Moses – a much longer and more detailed song that would “put Miriam’s to shame”? Why do we have both here in the final edited version of the story?

Miriam’s song celebrates a moment of liberation, or redemption for a group of fugitives fleeing from a powerful enemy. God is a warrior here. There is no denying it. In God’s liberating action one people is saved and this leads to the downfall and death of another. This is a problem. Martin Luther King, Jr., helped us with that. In his sermon Death of Evil upon the Seashore, he says, “This was a joyous daybreak that had come to end the long night of their captivity. The meaning of this is not found in the drowning of the Egyptian soldiers, for no one should rejoice at the death or defeat of a human being. Rather, this story symbolizes the death of evil, of inhumane oppression and unjust exploitation.” I believe he was just saying for new life to emerge, something has to die – power over, oppressive power, has to die.

And so Miriam sings when that which oppresses, limits, diminishes any human being is destroyed, lost in sound of the crashing waves. Lost forever.

This is the same sister of Moses who stood watch over and guarded him when he was an infant threatened to be lost in the wiping out of Israelite sons. But here she is given a name. We are told that her name is Miriam. Here she is called a prophet. SHE IS CALLED A PROPHET. For Miriam and the women to sing like women have frequently done when a battle is won. That is one thing. For Miriam to sing and be named a prophet. That is another. The prophet was the spokesperson from God to the community and from the community to God. A prophet named the realities of life and theologically interpreted them. Miriam names the deliverance the Israelites have experienced; she attributes the deliverance to the mighty Yahweh; she calls the community to express gratitude to God by naming and then claiming their liberation. “Sing to Yahweh, for Yahweh has triumphed gloriously.”

The Exodus story belongs in its beginning and ending to the women; the stories find their continuity in the figure of Miriam. At the beginning, she stands on the bank of the river protecting her brother Moses. Then, at the end, she is again on the shore. The story comes full circle and is complete. But Miriam’s dancing by the seashore and proclaiming the good and salvific deeds of Yahweh is more. Miriam’s being labeled as a prophet is more. Miriam’s being the performer is more. These help answer the question – who can be the speaker? Who can name the people’s experience? Who can be a spokesperson for and to God? In answering these questions it seems that God always has a bigger imagination than we do…

Anna Julia Copper was born in 1858 in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her mother was a slave and her father, her mother’s master. She became one of the most highly educated black women of the 19th century. She received her Ph.D. Her dissertation was entitled, “Attitudes toward Slavery in Revolutionary France.” Like other prestigious black women of her time, she sought to implement a vision of freedom and justice. It was through her “A Voice from the South,” published in 1892 that Cooper questioned and challenged the domination of the weak by the strong. She attacked the evils of racism, sexism, and classism.

Her work is important to me…and striking because she recognized early on the importance of woman’s voice. She thought about this practically and theologically. She wrote about metaphors for God – searching for the one that made most sense to her, that most closely fit her own life experience. She described God’s presence as a divine spark, a shadow mark, an urge cell. Primary for her, however, was her own understanding of God as the “singing something.”

“God is the singing something inside me, that rises up and brings me to voice. It pours forth from me, enables to stand against oppression.”

God for Anna Julia Cooper was not imagistic. It was musical and auditory. She understood our god likeness to be in sound, words, voice. Thus she spoke not of being created in the image of God, but in the sound of God. God was this force that, in the end could not be suppressed, that moved people to speech and to action. That is, I believe, what happened to Miriam.

These two verses about Miriam and the women are the last two verses of the Exodus narrative. In the very next verse, Moses and the Israelites begin their long journey through the wilderness. These verses are the rightful conclusion – the exclamation point - of this mighty story of deliverance. Because as the mighty forces that seek to silence are dismantled, de-constructed, and thrown into the mighty waters, new voices emerge. New prophets are heard. That is what happens…through the painful letting go of power by some and the gaining of new freedoms and respect by others.

Throughout this new year, if we do the work as we are called to do – in CLGS and in PANA and in CMS and in DRC - and in all of our life and work together, we will begin to hear those voices rising up among us and in the world. We will hear the sounds of tambourines. We will hear new songs of liberation and rejoicing.

Thanks be to God.