Sermon Seeds: Remember, Restore, Renew
Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 18
Exodus 12:1-14 with Psalm 149 or
Ezekiel 33:7-11 with Psalm 119:33-40
Additional reflection on Matthew 18:15-20
For worship and other resources for this UCC “One Read” Kick Off Sunday for the Reading Changes Lives Initiative, see Worship Ways for September 7, 2014.
For resources on the Seasons of Creation theme (Forest Sunday), go to Season of Creation.
You’re invited to share your thoughts and reflections on these texts on our Facebook page.
Remember, Restore, Renew
by Kathryn Matthews 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. While some commentaries avoid this question entirely, it’s certain that there will be plenty of folks in our pews on this Sunday, remembering that movie, remembering the story from Bible class, remembering the heartbreak and the horror, and harboring some discomfort and questions of their own. A preacher has to explore this text with that awareness, whether or not the questions can be resolved or the discomfort eased.
Today’s passage is set on the edge of that defining moment in the life of Israel, thbe 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 recall 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” (Exodus, Westminster Bible Companion). 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 by delivering them from slavery, for now they also “come to a new self-understanding: They become a ‘congregation'” (Exodus, Westminster Bible Companion).
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, Janzen 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” (Exodus, Westminster Bible Companion). Now, there is a sermon waiting to be written!
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 Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts).
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.” In his reflection in Texts for Preaching Year A, 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, that thought 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 see this perhaps brutal portrayal of God as “partial and, therefore, distorted” and thus to “deny the portrait of Yahweh as the killer of the innocent.” His “wrestling” takes him 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 to be reminded 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” (New Proclamation Year A 2008). What is the danger of 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!
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. 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” (Exodus, The New Interpreter’s Bible).
And so, in our worship, we gather regularly and with great care, with great attention to detail, to remember who God has been and who God 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” (Exodus, The New Interpreter’s Bible).
For further reflection:
Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters, 20th century
“I would like to learn, or remember, how to live.”
Anita Diamant, The Red Tent, 20th century
“It is terrible how much has been forgotten, which is why, I suppose, remembering seems a holy thing.”
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.”
“The time is ripe for looking back over the day, the week, the year, and trying to figure out where we have come from and where we are going to, for sifting through the things we have done and the things we have left undone for a clue to who we are and who, for better or worse, we are becoming.”
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.”
Kaj Munk, Danish pastor killed by the Gestapo in 1944 (in The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne):
“What is therefore, our task today? Shall I answer: ‘Faith, hope and love’? That sounds beautiful. But I would say–courage. No–even that is not challenging enough to be the whole truth. Our task today is recklessness. For what we Christians lack is not psychology or literature….we lack a holy rage–the recklessness which comes from the knowledge of God a