Sunday, September 6, 2020
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost Year A
Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 18)
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.
All readings for this week:
Exodus 12:1-14 with Psalm 149
Ezekiel 33:7-11 with Psalm 119:33-40
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 Matthews
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, if we can imagine that).
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.
What about the grieving parents?
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, even as the people of Israel obediently carried out God's instructions about the Passover meal. As a mother and grandmother myself, this part of the story breaks my heart even more deeply today.
The questions we don't voice
This story of a deity who delivered death to innocent children and sorrow to grieving parents inevitably helped to shape my childhood image of God. While some scholars avoid this question entirely, it's certain that there will be many folks who hear this week's text, remembering that movie, remembering the story from Bible class, remembering the heartbreak and the horror, and harboring 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.
Speaking truth to power
Our 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 seemingly "weak" person standing up against oppressive, overwhelming authority.
The story itself is 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.
A shift in tone
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 beloved "first-born child."
Things, and the people, are different now
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: God tells the people to begin each year with a remembrance of what came before--their deliverance--and to ground their hope for the future in God's protection and care.
Time itself is new, and the "fountain of celebration" of Passover 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.'"
Both new, and rooted in the past
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."
How do we become new?
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.
What will we bring with us?
As we move into the future, knowing ourselves as a people formed by God, descended from people of faith, Janzen reminds us that it is imperative to be careful about what we bring with us on our way, leaving behind "old jealousies and animosities" and opening ourselves to newness in Christ, our Passover Lamb, a newness that transforms our community and its way of living "with the 'unleavened bread' of sincerity and truth."
A good antidote, I believe, to "But we've always done it that way!" (And words of wisdom for the church in every age.)
Drama and instructions
Many scholars note the contrast between the drama of the story and the clear, calm, detailed instructions that, Gary Anderson observes, "looks more like a section from Leviticus than Exodus." Commentators 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.
However, 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."
God as a "bringer of death"?
Still, there is that troublesome question of God as "bringer of death." James Newsome wrestles with this problem even as he affirms the celebration of Passover and of God as Redeemer of the people. In his reflection, Newsome 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, when ancient peoples understood God as more "warlike" than we do.
Judging the people
Indeed, if Israel had a sense of evil as personal, then it was necessary that "God brought judgment on evil persons" and--here's the difficult part for children watching that depiction of wailing parents--it's also necessary to bring that judgment on the people who were part of "evil societies," presumably like Pharaoh's Egypt.
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."
The surprises in Scripture
However, Newsome's "wrestling" also 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. And we know how that turned out: surprise!
God ended the story of Jonah with this question (and it's a good one for us today): "And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?" (Jonah 4:11). Who indeed is beyond the reach of God's care?
Remembering the story
But this Exodus 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!
Imagine a better land
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."
What is the danger of living in "comfortable 'slavery' to culture" rather than in the wilderness, scary and harsh as it may be? We remember that it didn't take long for the Israelites to look longingly back on the "comforts" of their servitude!
At home in the empire?
Walter Brueggemann provides beautiful commentary on this 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."
Reading the text in our present predicament
As I read these words, I confess that my personal lens allows me to see my own experience mostly in the safety and "unseemly" comfort Brueggemann writes about. I don't worry about "midnight violence" in the form of raids on my home, or deportations, or the need to flee wars and civil unrest, or, for that matter, in the grinding, day-to-day poverty caused by forces so much larger than myself, forces that many would see as the result of economic empires that do not care about the "little ones" they affect in harmful ways.
Such awareness, I hope, leads to a continuing "restlessness" and remembrance of the story of a God who cares about all of God's children, a God who nevertheless brings judgment on every form of oppression and injustice.
A different lens this year
However, this year I read the story of peril and deliverance through the lens of the Covid-19 pandemic and its economic repercussions; the turmoil of civil unrest in the wake of more racially motivated violence by the powers that be; worsening political tensions that divide our families, our communities, even our churches; environmental degradation and destruction most immediately experienced, for example, by people in Iowa after a horrendous storm and those in California fleeing rampant wildfires, as well as those suffering the effects of a historic storm in the Gulf.
All of these terrible threats swirl around us, affecting some of us more than others but certainly making every one of us less secure, more fearful, and perhaps even wondering where God is at work in the midst of it all. For people of faith, one of the most important sources of comfort and one of the best places to ask such a question, is the church.
What holds us together?
How grieved we are, then, that right now we can't come together and find strength (if not clear or quick answers to our questions) in the communities of faith that support and nourish us. Pastors feel frustrated that they can't be with members and friends of their churches who are suffering loneliness, loss and anxiety during these days.
Preachers have to speak to cameras rather than faces, and hope that technology helps to hold us together in community when we can't exchange even a handshake, let alone a hug. We can't even "abide" alongside one another in our pews, as comforting presence.
Looking toward the ancestors
Without minimizing the suffering anyone is experiencing right now, we might draw some inspiration from the stories we have heard of our ancestors in faith, whether it's our own parents who lived through difficult times--wars, the Great Depression, the turmoil of the 60's and 70's (I've reminded myself many times this year that my own mother actually had the terrible flu in 1918 that killed millions of people around the world; she was two years old and she survived)....or we might even think about those who suffered even more and persevered.
Their faith, their perseverance, their fortitude is in our spiritual DNA as well, today, as we face the challenges of this worldwide suffering. Ironically, this is one of the few global experiences of misery that we have known in a long time, and we might find a sense of family, or at least community, in our efforts to help one another.
We too can be made new
Hopefully, we would help rather than compete with one another. We have the opportunity, in a strange way, to be made new by this awful trial. We might listen for God's guidance and inspiration, open our eyes and our hearts to all that God has provided us: the brilliance of scientific minds, the tender skills and dedication of medical professionals, the human "infrastructure" of institutions founded and sustained to be sources of protection, care and hope for all of God's children. God is at work through all of these wonders.
We remember that God was with those ancestors long ago, and God is with us today, too. Who knows what remarkable possibilities lie ahead of us, through the wilderness of our anxiety and our suffering?
A living hope that renews, restores and impels
And so, in the church, in our worship, we "gather" regularly, virtually, and with deep 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 Exodus story 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.
Why we tell the story again and again
Again, from Walter Brueggemann: when we tell this story and celebrate what God has done in the past, we "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."
I wonder, then, when I look back on my childhood fears in hearing this story, how it might have been told more fully, in ways that included both the pain and the hope but also nurtured a deep trust in the goodness of God who is behind every story of redemption, mercy and grace.
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles and additional reflections) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (email@example.com) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
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."
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 and humanity. The ability to rage when justice lies prostrate on the streets, and when the lie rages across the face of the earth...a holy anger about the things that are wrong in the world. To rage against the ravaging of God's earth, and the destruction of God's world. To rage when little children must die of hunger when the tables of the rich are sagging with food. To rage at the lie that calls the threat of death and the strategy of destruction peace. To rage against complacency. To restlessly seek to change human history until it conforms to the norms of the Kingdom of God."
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Remember, Restore, Renew
Sunday, September 6, 2020