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Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. - Exodus 15:20

I will always remember the first time I won a trophy. I was 14 years old and I was at a dance at a local community centre. I can’t remember who invited me or how I came to find out about it, but I do remember that my mom was a chaperone. 

The moment the Macarena started playing, a string of dancers came out. An older girl saw me standing against the wall and pulled me onto the dance floor. Thankfully I knew most of the moves from gym class, but I had never danced the Macarena like this. I remember feeling like this was my moment. And, despite looking, I’m sure, like an overcooked piece of spaghetti trying to escape the pan, the judges that evening chose to award my 14-year old self the trophy for the “Best Macarena.” 

The people on the dance floor that night were my Miriams. They knew all of the words and all the moves and even more importantly, they knew how to inspire even the most reluctant in the crowd to dance like you were worthy of a medal, like everything in the world was exactly as it should be, like finally, finally you were free.

Rosamond Eleanor Herklots—the composer of the hymn we sang before and after the gospel reading today—she was another Miriam for her time. She was born in India in 1905 to British missionary parents. As an adult, she taught briefly in Palestine before returning to the UK to work as a secretary to a neurologist who specialized in treating spina bifida. During the air-raids in the Second World War, she used her musical talent to entertain thousands of Londoners, namely children, in the underground shelters. She composed over 100 hymns, though only five were ever published, and countless ‘booklets’ of poetry including ‘Black Simon’s Story’ adopting the voice of lesser told New Testaments characters. Her hymnody as well as her poetry is said to have had “biblical roots, contemporary feel, and wide social concern.”  

“Forgive our sins, as we forgive” is the name of the hymn we sang today, and can you just imagine, Winston Churchill announces that the war is over and in bomb shelters across the country thousands of children are singing the words, “In blazing light your cross reveals The truth we dimly knew: What trivial debts are owed to us, How great our debt to you! Lord, cleanse the depths within our souls, And bid resentment cease; Then, bound to all in bonds of love, Our lives will spread your peace”?

Rosamond Eleanor Herklots was a kind of prophet Miriam for her time. She brought out the tambourines, so to speak, and led her people in songs of praise when it seemed that evil would most certainly win the day. 

The song that Miriam sings in the Bible follows the story of Moses parting the red sea. While this story is upheld as one of the great victories of the Old Testament, it goes without saying that it raises some difficult questions. Moses parts the red sea and the people of Israel walk to safety while thousands of Egyptian soldiers drown around them. If this is indeed the God of Moses and Miriam, can we really join them in singing? 

In the modern-day conflict between Israel and Palestine, some would say this is God choosing a side, showing partiality for the Jewish people. Others would be quick to cite the Babylonian Talmud, a kind of encyclopaedia for Jewish life, where a story is told about angels gathering around the people of Israel following the parting of the red sea. The angels are about to open their mouths in songs of praise, when God rebukes them saying: “My handiwork [the Egyptians are] drowning in the sea; would you utter [a] song before me!”

The point being that loss of life, no matter what side, is no reason to celebrate. All people are created by God.

Laurel Dykstra preached an excellent sermon here this summer about the biblical character  , Joseph (you know him from Tim Rice’s musical, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”). Laurel talked about how Joseph is typically seen as this downtrodden misfit who though sold into slavery by his brothers, eventually comes out a winner. 

But, in fact, Joseph is not entirely innocent. He and his family were once slave owners themselves. It’s not until later in the story, when Joseph is working his way up the Egyptian hierarchy, that Joseph’s family become climate refugees, pushed out from their country by famine, exiled from their positions of power.

So, I wonder, actually, if when we read these dramatic stories about God using creation to subdue the powerful forces of oppression, I wonder if it isn’t so much about whose side God is on, but the fact that when it comes to the moral arc of the universe, God the Creator is on the side of Creation? God is ultimately the God who “rearranges land and sea” in order to reveal God’s principles for a Creation built on peace and equity, not on forced labour, exploitation, and domination.

This is the message at the heart of our gospel reading today. In God’s kingdom, even the one who has been exploited, even the one who has been oppressed, doesn’t get a free pass to exploit others the second they find themselves in a position of power. Because in God’s kingdom, forgiveness beyond what any one of us could possibly imagine is what ultimately reigns. 

One New Testament scholar puts it this way: “How might we become as aware of our own capacity to sin against others as we are of the capacities of others to sin against us?”

Another says it like this: “[Remember] Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. Recall the meaning behind God’s choice not to enter into the holy city on the equivalent of a tank. Although there is violence in this text, through Christ, we glimpse the will of God that all weapons of tyranny and war be destroyed at last, be they horses and chariots, or guns and drones.”

The will of God is what we profess in the vows made at our baptism: to renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God, to renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, to renounce our capacity to enslave those who are indebted to us even when we ourselves have been set free. 

Though sometimes I have considerable doubt, though I am often reluctant to join in the dance, I do think that ultimately we can take up our tambourines and join Miriam in song. God has set you free! God has set me free! God has set even our enemies free! For, God has set all of creation free! Amen! Amen! Amen!

Works referenced

Laurel Dykstra, “Joseph: Queer Coded and Empire Aligned” accessed online on 17 September 2023 at

“Rosamond Eleanor Herklots” in Praise Trust, accessed online on 17 September 2023 at

Ralph W. Klein, Anna Marsh, Casey Thornburgh Sigmon, Dennis Olson, and Anathea Portier-Young, “Commentary on Exodus 14:19-31” in Working Preacher, accessed online on 17 September 2023 at

Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 39, accessed online on 17 September 2023 at

Audrey West, “Commentary on Matthew 18:21-35” in Working Preacher, accessed online on 17 September 2023 at