09/10/17 – Taking Action Like Nachshon

Three weeks ago we began our series of readings from the book of Exodus or from what our Jewish brothers and sisters call the Book of Names, Shemoth. I invited us to consider how our individual names and how our collective name (Redeemer) call us to embody God’s love in San Rafael and the world. Just as the Hebrew understanding of the name “Moses” recalls God’s rainbow promise of love and protection to Noah so too do each of our names call us to express the rainbow diversity of God’s love. We are what Desmond Tutu calls the “Rainbow People of God.”

We live into our own particular expressions of God’s rainbow by first immersing ourselves in prayer. We learned from Moses that, without a prior commitment to prayer, our attempts to protect the vulnerable and resist oppression can often make things worse rather than better. It was only when Moses made himself at home in God’s presence (and rested in the Ground of Being) that he was able to align himself with the redemptive mission of Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh and to effectively liberate an enslaved group of immigrants from the dogged grip of the world’s most powerful empire. Service to the poor and the oppressed is most effective when rooted in prayer. Faith without action is dead, but action without faith is deader.

The Exodus readings from last Sunday and this morning echo this call to embody God’s love and live into our own unique expressions of God’s rainbow through prayer and service to the poor. However, the emphasis in these readings is not so much on the prayer but rather on the courageous action that one must take after receiving clear direction in prayer.

Last Sunday’s readings included detailed instruction on how to observe the Passover Feast. God says to Moses, “This is how you shall eat the Passover lamb: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly” (Exodus 12:11) Now as someone who lives in Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto, a few doors down from the world famous Slow Food Movement restaurant Chez Panisse, I am a proponent of eating mindfully and slowly. According to Exodus, however, the Passover meal is not to be eaten slowly, but rather very quickly. In fact, one commentator refers to the Passover feast as the first “fast food” meal. It is not a time to prayerfully savor every taste and texture of the food. It is to be eaten in haste, with staff in hand and sandals on feet because God may call you to action at any moment.

The reading this morning recounts the most dramatic event of the Exodus story: the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea. As I read this passage in light of Jewish midrash, the message is once again not so much a call to prayer but rather a call to courageous action after receiving clear direction in prayer. There are some gaps in the biblical narrative and whenever there are gaps, the rabbis tend to fill them in with creative details and stories, called midrash. When it comes to the crossing of the Red Sea, the rabbis emphasize a character who is actually not mentioned in the story itself. They emphasize a character who is named earlier in the book of Names, in chapter 6 (verse 23); a character named Nachshon. Nachshon was a young prince of the tribe of Judah who was in his early 20s during the Exodus; and it is because of the courageous action of Nachshon that the Israelites successfully crossed the sea. So what is the action of Nachshon?

We first need to look at verse 10 of chapter 14 in your pew Bible when the Israelites cry out to the Lord in great fear as Pharaoh’s army approaches. However, the Israelites cry out to the Lord mostly by doing some serious kvetching to Moses: 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? 12 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.” 13 But Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. 14 The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”

And then according to the rabbis, Moses starts to pray to God. Moses makes himself at home in God’s presence and rests in the Ground of Being; and Moses invites all the people to keep still and rest in God’s loving presence. But, even though stillness and contemplative prayer are necessary, this is not the time to keep still. This is a time for courageous action. God makes this clear to Moses when he says in verse 15, “Why do you cry out to me? Why are you sitting still in prayer? And why are you telling the people to keep still? Tell the Israelites to go forward.” Now is the time for action! Bold and courageous action. Although the action is driven by and drenched in prayer; the action does not involve sitting still, but moving forward in faith.

There is a powerful song by the rock band U2 titled “Please” in which Bono sings poignantly to Christians who use prayer as an excuse for not taking action. He sings, “Please, please, get up off your knees.” That’s what God says to Moses, “Why do you cry out to me? Get up off your knees, take action and move forward!”

So while the Israelites are complaining and Moses is still crying out to God, Nachshon takes action and steps into the water. He continues walking as the water comes up to his knees, then his waist, then his shoulders, and then his neck. And the Israelites see him and stop their complaining. Moses stops crying out to God. And as the waters cover Nachshon’s mouth and nose so that he can no longer breathe, Moses finally takes action and does what God has been telling him to do all along. He lifts up his staff and the sea splits so that all the children of Israel can move forward and cross the sea on dry ground. All thanks to the courageous action of Nachshon.[1]

The Book of Names calls us to first root ourselves in prayer, but once we have received direction in prayer, there comes a time when we have to get up off our knees and take action like Nachshon and move forward in faith, even when the obstacles might seem insurmountable.

How is God calling us to take action like Nachshon? When we pray together in a few minutes, let us listen to how God is calling us to take action for those for whom we pray. We can take action like Nachshon by donating money to Episcopal Relief and Development to help the many victims of Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Jose. Maybe God is calling you to take action by spearheading the Rise Against Hunger packaging event that we did last January and hope to do again. Maybe God is calling you to take action by participating in the Marin Interfaith Street Chaplaincy Wellness Gatherings on Tuesday nights at 5 PM at the First Presbyterian Church in San Rafael. You can join us in October when the Youth Group serves salad and cookies to the hungry and homeless. Maybe God is calling you to take action by helping Redeemer Preschool find a new teacher. How is God calling you specifically to take action like Nachshon?

Let us pray and listen; and again I invite us to consider how our individual names and our collective name (Redeemer) calls us to take action. The name Nachshon is connected to the Hebrew word Nachshol which means a stormy tidal wave. Nachshon lived up to his name by walking courageously into the dangerous waters and thus stirring up a tidal wave of freedom and deliverance. The name Moses means “to draw out from the waters.” Moses lived up to his name by drawing the children of Israel out from the waters and also by reminding God of the rainbow that was drawn out from the waters as a promise of divine love and protection. How is God calling you to live up to your name? How is God calling Redeemer to live up to our name? How is God calling us to take action like Nachshon?

[1] Exodus 14:21, Mekhilta Beshallach 6, I 234. See The Classic Midrash: Tannaitic Commentaries on the Bible, trans. Reuven Hammer (Paulist Press: Mahwah NJ, 1995), 92.