Border Crossings --- Sermon for Pentecost 16A/Proper 19A (Exodus 14)

Exodus 14:19-31

We cross borders all the time. While crossing the border into Canada is relatively easy, as long as we have the proper identification, crossing the Mexican border is much more difficult. It’s even more difficult if you’re crossing over without documentation. People cross borders, whether our southern border or other borders, for many different reasons. Sometimes, they are refugees fleeing violence and persecution in their homeland. Other migrants might be seeking a better life in a place that offers more opportunities. I think one thing that many of us forget is that migration is not a new phenomenon. Most likely, if we are European Americans, our ancestors came to these shores for the same reason many come today. 

When it comes to immigration to the United States, it’s clear that our nation’s immigration laws and policies are broken. Fixing the problem will require careful attention that to this point our politicians aren’t ready to face. 

There are other borders and boundaries that we face in life. They’re different from national boundaries, but they can pose challenges to our daily lives. Yes, it can be difficult to navigate the ever-changing landscape of our economic, cultural, religious, generational, ethnic, sexual, or gender boundaries.

Years ago, during my first term in seminary, I took American Protestant Theology. Each of my classmates and I had to make a presentation. I don’t remember what my topic was, but I do remember the presentation by an African-American classmate on Black Theology. He told us that unless we were Black we couldn’t truly understand the Black experience in America or Black Theology. Being young and naive, I found this difficult to accept. Why couldn’t I understand?  After all, isn’t there just one kind of theology? You can see I had much to learn!

Over the years, I’ve become less naive and have discovered that there are some things in life that I will never experience, and therefore never completely understand. These are, you might say, borders that prove difficult to cross. The only way we can cross to the other side is to go as invited guests who will humbly listen to the people who truly understand. It’s a lesson that I’ve had to relearn many times over the years. I continue learning these lessons!   

The reading from Exodus 14 involves a border crossing crisis. Israel has left behind the bondage of slavery in Egypt. In other words, they’re refugees seeking freedom in a new land. Getting there will be a challenge. They’ll face seemingly uncrossable borders as they head toward the Promised Land with Moses in the lead. 

At first, the people of Israel were excited about their future, but then they faced their first obstacle, the sea. Not only did the sea stand in the way of their travel to the Promised Land, but Pharaoh had changed his mind and was now in pursuit. They found themselves in a most difficult position, with either slavery or death as the only options. On one side was Pharaoh’s army and the other side was the sea. The people, understandably, feared for their lives. They cried out to Moses: “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” (Exodus 14:11-12). 

The good news in this story is that God was with them. Yes, God would make a way for them to cross to the other side of the border and the freedom that it promised. According to our story, God tells Moses to lift his staff and stretch it over the sea. When he does this, the sea is going to divide creating a path for the people to cross over on dry land. There would be no need to build bridges or boats because God would build a freeway through the sea so they could cross over the border to freedom (Exod. 14:1-18).

When we pick things up in verse 19, Pharaoh is closing in on Israel but God is with them in the form of the Angel of God and the pillar of cloud, which had been leading the way to the Promised Land. Now the Angel and the Pillar move from the front to the rear of this group of migrants, standing between them and the pursuing Egyptian army. When darkness fell, this cloud lit up the night and so no one approached Israel. 

Now with the angel and the cloud standing guard over them, Moses stretched out his hand over the waters. When he did this, a strong east wind came up in the night and blew the waters apart making a pathway through the sea. The Israelites crossed through the sea on dry land so they could continue their journey to the Promised Land. When Pharaoh’s army pursued the people into the sea, we’re told that Yahweh, the LORD, looked down upon the army from the pillar and threw the army into a panic. So, with the army in disarray, the LORD told Moses to stretch his hand over the waters so that the sea might return to its normal depth. So, even as Israel escaped to the other side of the border, Pharaoh’s army was drowned in the sea. Now the people of God could continue their journey, though if you continue reading you’ll discover that this will not be the final obstacle, the final border, to be crossed.

When I ponder this story, my thoughts go to the monument that stands at the edge of the Detroit
River. The monument marks the spot where the Underground Railroad reached its terminus. The monument points us across the river where freedom and safety lay for these former slaves. But first, they had to cross that final boundary. While the river didn’t dry up, the people found a way to cross over to freedom.

Border crossings continue to this day all across the globe. There is, as I noted earlier, our own national borders that are compromised by the unwillingness of our political leaders to deal with a broken immigration system. But it’s more than that. The world we live in is facing many challenges, which give rise to migration. Until we work to resolve those challenges, we will continue to see people seeking freedom north of the border. Unfortunately, some of the proposed solutions to the crisis at the border are inhumane and even dangerous. Some politicians have suggested using the National Guard to shoot and kill migrants crossing the border. I don’t believe that this is a Christian solution. Although the problem of the border is bigger than what we can deal with this morning, this story from Exodus gives us a starting point for having that conversation.

There are, of course, other kinds of borders that we face in life. We are all prone to erecting borders out of fear of an unknown future or unknown neighbors. Some of these borders are physical in nature but others are invisible but still very present because they exist in our hearts and minds.

I’ve been working on a book that I’ve titled Eating With Jesus. I’m writing this book to stir up a conversation about the fences Christian traditions put up around the Lord’s Table. I’m arguing that Jesus didn’t fence the Table, so why do we put up fences? Why do we create unnecessary borders that keep people from encountering Jesus at his Table?  

There is another question that this passage raises for us to consider. That question has to do with whether in our daily lives, we’re border enforcers or border crossers? As we ponder this question, we hear a word from Scripture that reminds us that we’re not alone when it comes to crossing borders. The message here is that we don’t need to fear the path forward, because God is with us, even as God was with the people of Israel in the form of the pillar of fire and cloud. 

This morning I come to you as a substitute preacher. I’ve been here before and maybe you’ll invite me back, but perhaps this passage has a word for you as you face your future as a congregation. You are in the midst of a season of discernment seeking to discern a path into a largely unknown future. Fear can set in. When fear sets in it can paralyze decision making. So my word for you this morning as an outsider is simply this: Know that God is with you. Yes, God is with you making a way for you through the sea so you cross over on dry land. 

When you get to the other side, and you will, be sure to celebrate. But also remember that this is only the beginning of the journey. There will be other obstacles, but take to heart the songs of Moses and Miriam in Exodus 15. Take heart in the promise that Moses proclaims, that God’s steadfast love will redeem you. Take to heart as well your congregation’s name, for you and I, each in our own way, are on a “journey of faith.”

I leave you with the words from a Ruth Duck hymn you’ll find in the Chalice Hymnal: 

Lead on, O cloud of presence; the exodus is come;

In wilderness and desert our tribe shall make its home.

Our bondage left behind us, new hopes within us grow.

We seek the land of promise where milk and honey flow.                                                                                                                       —Ruth Duck (1974) Chalice Hymnal, 633 

Preached by:

Dr. Robert D. Cornwall

Pulpit Supply

Journey of Faith Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Ann Arbor, Michigan

Pentecost 16A/Proper 19A

September 17, 2023

Moyers, Mike. Guidance Day and Night, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved September 16, 2023]. Original source: Mike Moyers,


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