I do not know how many of you watch police procedurals on TV—if we were in person, I might ask you to raise your hands, and I briefly considered testing out Zoom’s poll feature to ask, but it really is not that important. You know who you are, whether it is Law and Order, or any of its myriad spin-offs, CSI…or any of its myriad spin-offs, NCIS, JAG…I am sure there are more. Katherine is a fan of Law and Order: SVU, though I am never quite sure how much if that is the fact that she shares a name with the star, Mariska Hargitay.
These shows, while entertaining, have given our collective consciousness a couple of terrible ideas. First, the forensic science presented in these shows is often…nonexistent or nonsense, and when it is something that is real and works, it usually works very differently than it does in the show. Prosecutors have complained about it because it has shifted jury expectations of what forensic data and science can actually prove. It has also frustrated defense attorneys, because it has made juries overly trusting of data in many areas—a few years ago, the FBI started a review of some 2,500 cases which used hair analysis after admitting that hair analysis on its own was not even reliably able to distinguish human hair from dog hair.
Another bad trope of these shows is the idea of the police line-up and eye-witness testimony. Our memory for details is terrible, even more so when you factor in that being witness to a crime is, for most people, a traumatic event. That trauma makes our memory even worse. The kicker though, is that our memory is not just bad, it is worse than we think it is, and it is easy to manipulate.
Let us take today’s text as an example. It is another story most of us know well: the Israelites are finally escaping from Pharaoh. Pharaoh’s armies are in pursuit, and then, suddenly, the Israelites are caught, trapped between Pharaoh’s army and the sea. Moses lifts his staff, and the waters part, instantly creating a path where none had been before.
Katherine remembers learning the story this way in Sunday school, even being given a page from a coloring book with the Israelites walking between the walls of water over the bodies of dead fish. She has, in fact, long before I started preparing for this sermon, described this coloring book page in such vivid detail that I am half convinced my church used the same one despite no memory of that prior to our conversation. As I said, memory can be manipulated. For example, she says the fish had Xes for eyes …which has left her, for the past 30 some years, wanting to know why God had to kill the fish in this sudden parting of the waters.
And I understand the drive that caused this artist to put the fish in the picture, a drive to show the great strangeness and wonder of the event, this miraculous parting of the waters.
But this artist’s memory of the passage was clouded, as, I think is most of our memory of the text. I read it just a few minutes ago, and then I summarized it even more recently, but how many of you noticed the change I made?
Well, once again, I cannot ask, but think the answer is not many.
Not many because the change I made is one we often make in our minds.
I said: “Moses lifts his staff, and the waters part, instantly creating a path where none had been before.”
The text reads: “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.”
It took all night.
All night long, a great storm blew, keeping the Egyptians back from the Israelites, keeping the Israelites safe all night long. All night long a great storm blew, pushing the waters, and the fish therein, away.
On the northern Outer Banks of North Carolina, it is possible, and, in fact, not all that uncommon for the tides to be different on each side of the island. On the ocean side, the Atlantic Ocean tides are driven by the gravity of the moon, pulling water closer to it. The Currituck Sound tides are driven by the wind—winds from the south push water north into the bottleneck created by the swamps around the Back Bay preserve in Virginia, raising the tide. Winds from the north push the water of the Currituck Sound south, into the basins of the Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds. The water gets lower, but I have never seen it get empty.
God brought a storm that kept the Israelites safe from the Egyptians through the night and created a path for them.
And now, we do not talk about the storm. The storm is not what they remembered. They remembered the clouds hiding them from the Egyptians. They remembered the wind pushing back the waters. They remembered the storm ceasing after they crossed, the winds abating or reversing and returning the water to its normal depth while the Egyptians were still in pursuit, their chariot wheels stuck and caught in the mud.
Our memory is not as great as we think it is. How often do we forget the storms? We remember that Jesus walked on water. Do you remember that it was during a storm?
We remember the stories of our success, of our triumph. We forget the fear we felt that we might fail. We forget the fear that we might be destroyed by the storm when we wake up to see we have not just been spared by the storm, but that God has used the storm to bring us something greater.
We forget that we had to wait through the night, and as a result, the next time we need a miracle, we want it now. We want it immediately. We do not want to wait. We do not want to participate. We want Mom, or Dad, or God to come in and fix it for us because we forget the storms.
This is, in fact, often a benefit. We were made to forget pain, to forget trauma. It is a defense mechanism programmed into us, and it allows us to move forward. We can remember that something hurt, but not exactly what that pain felt like. And yes, there are extreme times where we do, there are always exceptions, but, for the most part, we are wired to forget because it protects us. It prevents fear from overpowering us.
But it also makes it harder to remember the storms, and, when we are in the middle of a storm, it can cause us to forget how bad things were before. We will see that, as we continue into the Exodus story.
Right now, we are in a storm. We are waiting for the waters to part and the path forward to become clear.
Right now, we have to trust that we will not be blown away by the storm, but we also need to start trying to imagine something better on the other side. Not just a rush back to what we had before, but something new, something better. We are on the cusp of a great opportunity to restructure our lives.
We will, in the coming weeks, read about the Israelite’s struggle to do this. We will read about their fear. We will read about the times they even ask to go back to slavery, forgetting what they are running from. We will, ourselves, fall short.
But in between those moments, we can dream of something better. We can work for something better, not just better than where we are now, but better even than where we were.
And when we sing our songs of triumph, as Moses and Miriam and the Israelites did, we can remember our triumph, but I hope we will not forget how we came to it