Sunday, September 4
Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Remember, Restore, Renew
Holy God, you call us to righteousness and light. Teach us the undivided law of love, that we may love your children even as you do, love you with all our will and strength, and find our freedom in this blessed service, taught to us in word and deed by Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgements: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.
This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.
1. What image of God is provided by this text?
2. How do we faithfully integrate the old and the new?
3. What is the foundation for your sense of security?
4. In what ways do you experience "comfortable slavery to culture"?
5. Do our society, and our church, remember well?
by Kate Huey
A vivid memory from childhood television viewing is the scene that always terrified me during my family's annual viewing of the classic movie, The Ten Commandments: the angel of death passing over Egypt, killing every firstborn, bringing tragedy to every Egyptian household, including Pharaoh himself, but leaving the Jewish people untouched. The young son of Pharaoh, a little boy, lying dead on a bier, with his father over him, a broken man. After nine gruesome plagues, it was unfortunately necessary for God to strike Pharaoh at his heart, to "get him where he lives"--his beloved, firstborn son (in those days, they were even more precious than they are today). You knew that, finally, the great king (the fearsome Yul Brynner) would listen to Yahweh's demand, delivered by Moses (the formidable Charlton Heston) to "let my people go." With this kind of material, it's no wonder that it's a classic film.
The scene where the people gather up their children and possessions and head out was one of my favorites. But as a child, my relief that the people of Israel would finally be freed from slavery was even then mixed with a vague discomfort at the suffering of all those mothers and fathers, not just Pharaoh, who were weeping, broken-hearted, over their own dead children. (You could hear the haunting sound of their wailing and screaming in the background, as the people of Israel carried out God's instructions about the Passover meal.) This story of a deity who delivered death to innocent children inevitably helped to shape my childhood image of God, and I'm sure there are many others who remember the story from Bible class (or the movie), remember the heartbreak and the horror, and harbor some discomfort and questions of their own. This is one more text we have to wrestle with, whether or not the questions can be resolved or our discomfort eased.
Today's passage is set on the edge of that defining moment in the life of Israel, the exodus itself, after Moses has followed God's many instructions, delivering God's demands to mighty Pharaoh to "Let my people go." These exchanges between Moses and Pharaoh are the classic "speaking truth to power" that's become a description of any apparently weak person standing up against oppressive, overwhelming authority. The story itself is even more chilling than any movie could depict (even with today's special effects), and it moves quickly, with Pharaoh's heart hardening every time he seems to relent. But right in the middle of this drama, the action slows down and the narrative takes on a different tone and feel. Even though horrible danger looms (what could be worse than The Angel of Death?), God takes time to instruct the people about how to remember what is about to happen, how to worship properly not just that night, but in every age to come. That ritual would remember what God did for the people that terrible night, the protection God provided, and the cherished people they had become. Their worship, then, would serve to remind the people not only who God is in the life they share, but who they are as a people, as God's "first-born child."
Gerald Janzen describes two things that are different now, after this terrible night: time is changed, and so are the "social relationships" of the people of Israel. From an intolerable present, filled with despair, under the heel of the Egyptian gods, the people are launched into a new beginning: "Passover celebrates Israel's experience of God's redemption," Janzen writes, "which turns the past into a fountain of celebration to which one can return annually in remembrance (12:14) and turns the future into an open prospect that one can anticipate in hope." God tells the people to begin each year with a remembrance of what came before, and to ground their hope for the future in God's protection and care. Time itself is new, and the "fountain of celebration" both restores and renews the people of God.
New time, new relationships, new "self-concept." Janzen says that the people of Israel will now see themselves not only as "family," the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, because God is doing a new thing with them: "In the exodus," he writes, "God acts in a new way, delivering these people by triumphing over Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt. Through this deliverance, the people, while still knowing themselves as descendants of these ancestors, come to a new self-understanding: They become a 'congregation.'" (Janzen has written an excellent commentary on this text in the Westminster Bible Companion series.)
What do we bring with us?
And then Janzen provides an intriguing reflection on one of the commands that God gives the people in this passage, to eat the lamb with unleavened bread. Although the instructions about slaughtering and consuming the lamb are much more detailed, this unleavened bread is significant, too. We commonly understand that the people were to be ready to leave quickly, so there was no time for the bread to rise. But this unleavened bread also relates to who the Israelites now understand themselves to be, a people, Janzen says, both "new" and yet still "deeply rooted in their social and religious past." First, he explains how yeast works, with a "seed" element that carries over from the old to the new. Paradoxically, in establishing a new festival of the unleavened bread, God reminds the people, including us today, that there "are respects in which the new can become the new only if it brings forward no element of yeast from the old." Whether or not we know what it feels like to hover in fear of impending death, whether or not we have spent much time thinking of who we are as the church, Janzen provides a challenging reflection for the life of each local congregation and the United Church of Christ as a whole. As we move into the future, knowing ourselves as a people formed by God, descended from people of faith, it is imperative to be careful about what we bring with us on our way, not to allow "old jealousies and animosities to contaminate new communications. The fact that Christ has been sacrificed as our Passover lamb should move us to deal with one another with the 'unleavened bread' of sincerity and truth….the danger is that in leaving Egypt we take with us the old yeast that will simply give rise to the same old habits and patterns." A good antidote, I think, to "But we've always done it that way!"
Many commentators note the contrast between the drama of the story and the clear, calm, detailed instructions that, Gary Anderson says, "looks more like a section from Leviticus than Exodus." Many scholars also note that the people of Israel are delivered by God, but also claimed by God and expected to live faithfully in allegiance to God. But Anderson also reminds us that even in liberation the people are not completely "home free," as we would say, because "biblical Israel and, subsequently, the Jewish people themselves (after A.D. 70) never had the option of viewing the exodus as a completely finished event." Instead, as we their descendants do today, the people of Israel would see "the exodus event as both a past event and a present hope."
The witness of the whole Bible, not just one passage
Still, there is that troublesome question of God as "bringer of death." James Newsome wrestles with this problem even as he affirms Passover as "an unparalleled time of celebration of God's activity as Redeemer." He asks, "Does Yahweh not love the Egyptians too?" (He's undoubtedly expressing the thoughts of many a child watching "The Ten Commandments.") While Newsome can't resolve the question entirely, he provides context that sheds light on a very different worldview than our own, "from a time when women and men, including Israel, were accustomed to think of supernatural activity in more warlike terms than is the case today." If Israel "conceptualized evil not in abstract but in personal terms, the only way in which God could be understood to be combating evil was if God brought judgment on evil persons or, as in this case, persons who were members of evil societies." Newsome urges us to "admit that the understanding of Yahweh as the Deity who slaughters the firstborn is partial and, therefore, distorted" and thus to "deny the portrait of Yahweh as the killer of the innocent." His wrestling takes him (and us) to other parts of the biblical witness, where God's love extends far beyond Israel, including the well-known story of Jonah, who considered the Ninevites beyond the reach of God's grace.
But the story stands, and we tell it, and remember it, again and again, year after year. We do more than watch it re-enacted on the television screen by actors long dead. We Christians remember it in worship, in our churches, when we too gather for a meal to remember who God is, and who we are, too. Hank Langknecht suggests that the challenge within this worship may have something to do with not being ready to move: how can we be both a "pilgrim people" and a "settled community" with our buildings, our stability, our lack of mobility? We're hardly girding up for a time in the wilderness! The challenge, Langknecht writes, is "both to identify clearly the danger from which we would flee if we did flee...and to picture vividly the better land toward which we journey." There is surely a risk to living in "comfortable 'slavery' to culture" rather than in the wilderness. We remember that it didn't take long for the Israelites to look longingly back on the "comforts" of their servitude!
A false sense of security?
As usual, Walter Brueggemann provides beautiful commentary on the text, on the people's "large sense of protectedness from the midnight violence that is loosed in the empire." We see ourselves as "abidingly cared for in a world that is under profound threat"--words written before our perhaps-unfounded sense of security was shaken by world events brought home to our own shores ten years ago. But Brueggemann sees Pharaoh and Egypt in "every agent of oppression and abuse (including one's own socioeconomic system)," and urges us to "an important restlessness. Indeed, when the community of faith no longer has this 'festival of urgent departure,' it runs the risk of being excessively and in unseemly ways at home in the empire."
And so, in our worship, we gather regularly and with great care, with great attention to detail, to remember who God has been and is in our life together, and to remember who we are because of who God is, and what God continues to do. Because this is not just a story from long ago, the memory, and the worship, and the sense of God's protection are living, vibrant, renewing and restoring, yet impelling us toward God's future. Again, Brueggemann: "The practitioners of these festivals and the tellers of these tales are indeed sojourners dreaming of a better land, filled with God's abundance. The engaged memory of pain evokes hope for a transformed world. The children of this community cannot afford to be protected from either the pain or the hope."
For Further Reflection
Confucius, 6th century b.c.e.
I hear, I know. I see, I remember. I do, I understand.
Frederick Buechner, 21st century
You can't be too careful what you tell a child because you never know what he'll take hold of and spend the rest of his life remembering you by.
Morris Joseph, 20th century
Passover affirms the great truth that liberty is the inalienable right of every human being.
These three are the marks of a Jew--a tender heart, self-respect, and charity.
Elie Wiesel, 20th century
I marvel at the resilience of the Jewish people. Their best characteristic is their desire to remember. No other people has such an obsession with memory.
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Weekly Seeds is a service of the Congregational Vitality and Discipleship Ministry Team, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The Revised Common Lectionary is © 1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.