The narrative lectionary has us reading from the old testament since early September and will continue all the way through the fourth Sunday of Advent on December 20th. We have looked at a few stories in Genesis and today and next week we will be reading two stories from Exodus. Exodus tells the story of the Israelites in slavery in Egypt, their deliverance, and life after Egypt. In the first of six sections Exodus is concerned with the liberation of the Israelites from the oppression of Egypt and Pharaoh. Our reading today comes at the end of that narrative.
God has been with Moses and the Israelites from the beginning, including their captivity in Egypt and Yahweh promises them that they will be released. Nothing comes easy though. In chapters 5-10, Yahweh brings no less than nine plagues to Egypt, and still Pharaoh's heart remains hardened and he refuses to free the Egyptians from their slavery. In Chapter 11, Yahweh sends Moses directly to Pharaoh and the Egyptian court to speak Yahweh's words of warning of yet another plague that will befall the Egyptians that very night beginning at midnight. Our reading today begins after Moses stormed out of that meeting.
Here are the nine plagues that befell the Egyptians at Yahweh's command: The plague of blood, of frogs, of gnats, of flies, on livestock, of boils, the plague of hail, of locusts, and of darkness. And still Pharaoh would not let the Israelites out of captivity. Our readings today are from chapters 12 and 13 which describe and implement and then commemorate the deliverance from slavery in Egypt that finally came at the time of that last horrible plague, the killing of the first born of animals and humans.
The Jewish festival of Passover is a seven day long commemoration of this deliverance of the people of Israel. The first night of Passover the meal eaten, called a seder, is a very special meal where the story of the Exodus from Egypt is retold using a special text called the Haggadah.1 Children play a crucial part in the Haggadah. Often the youngest verbal child is given a role as one who asks questions specific to the Haggadah, one of which is “Why is this night different from other nights?” Much of the Haggadah including this question is in keeping with texts from Exodus ensuring the transmission of both the meal together with the story to commit to the words of Moses to “Remember this day on which you came out of Egypt.” By including kids in the story of the meal, they become witness to and involved in the adult discussions around the table. The kids see that they are a natural part of a life of faith and not separated out from the community especially when retelling this most important part of their ancestral story.
So why are modern day Christians reading about an ancient Jewish story?
1) As people of Jesus Christ, we need to understand the Jewish heritage of Jesus in order to understand Jesus and Jesus' message to us.
For example in just this story alone, the festival described “revolves around the importance of the lamb, its supply its distribution, and its use.” After Jesus' death he was described as the lamb in many ways. Jesus' commands to his disciples often come from some of the same lessons that are meant to be taught from this Exodus story. To that point, here are some other parts of the story that are crucial.
· The festival is communal - If your neighbor can't participate, help them. If the household is too small, join its closet neighbor in obtaining one. No one is left out, of our table either.
· Blood on doorposts – connects the blood, for the first time, with the exodus, so that when Jesus institutes the Lord's Supper, the substitution of his blood will connect with this early story of deliverance.
· Dress in traveling clothing – in a hurry.
· Unleavened bread – has not had time to rise, because leaving in a hurry.
· Burn anything left over. (DAILY bread; manna – not hoarded, stored, produced.)
2) When Jesus instituted the Lord's Supper, that Christians around the world are celebrating today on World Communion Sunday, he was celebrating the annual Festival of Passover that was part of his Jewish tradition. The better we understand the meal that Jesus was celebrating, the closer we are to understanding more fully, the meal that we re-enact and partake in when we celebrate the meal we will share today.
Most importantly, as Walter Brueggemann says, we need “... to see that [just as] the Old Testament is Christian Scripture even while it is thoroughly Jewish, so this festival is a part of our Christian memory and identity. Christians, like Jews, are children of these marked door posts, marked for safety in the midnight of chaos and crying. Christians, like Jews, are children of this hurried bread, postured to depart the empire, destined for freedom outside the norms and requirements of the empire.”2
Brueggemann's words are important because it's not just this story that is part of our Christian tradition. Christians are not Jewish people who have left Judaism behind and graduated to some new level of faith. Christians are rooted in the Jewish faith and have taken another path. We are very attached to the stories of our ancestors in the faith. The promises told in the stories from our Jewish heritage are promises for us too. The relationships with God, the mistakes of humans, the awe we feel, the wonder we experience, the fear and disappointment experienced by our faith ancestors are exactly the same feelings and experiences that describe Christians too. Connecting to our Jewish roots happens for Jews in their seder meal and for Christians in the Lord's supper. Both meals are based in the same Passover story without sharing all of the same elements. What is important is that we have ritualistic behaviors while telling a story. The importance of ritual and story together is that one without the other is misleading.
Ritual without story runs the risk of giving the actions alone a kind of magic quality as if they have merit on their own and function as some kind of mystical power, and they are often vague. A story without ritual runs the risk of being more quickly forgotten, or degenerating into superstition. A story without supporting action becomes unbelieved. Together, the ritual helps the story land deeply in us, because it is understood, cherished and verbalized and is attached to a time and place and a people. Ritual and story together become something pre-rational and automatic, while remaining timeless and memorable.
Because stories are so crucial to the identity of every culture, it is important to understand the stories that we tell.3 There are many kinds of stories. There are so many narratives that are told. No two people in the same situation will tell the same version of an event. My brother and I who grew up in the same homes, cities, had the same parents, went to most of the same schools, shared many friends still don't share the same perspective on our memories. No matter how similar, one person can never share the same skin as another.
Do you remember that “question” that was going around the internet where you would listen to a sound and say what word you heard. Multiple people listening to the same sound at the same time heard different words. It was actually a little creepy. I was in a class where someone was discussing the idea. Some of us had never heard of it so someone played just the sound clip, not the explanation. It made me doubt my sense of reality to hear some people agree with the word I heard, and others be absolutely sure it was another word.4 We were all correct. (It might be fun to try it, but I don't know how to find a recording of just the sound clip. If you know which words you have to choose from, your brain might choose one over the other.) This is the same reason why 10 witnesses to a car accident will describe different scenes.
I have been talking a lot lately about being aware of different perspectives. I don't recommend this because we all need to figure out where we are wrong. I recommend it so that we can understand why more than one of us can be right. It's a harmless trick to hear a sound clip and know the truth and your partner knows another truth and you're both correct. You can imagine all the ways this happens all the time. A wading pool is perfect for a toddler and knee deep is pretty deep. That same pool of course wouldn't be considered deep at all to a grown person. Someone who is hungry when they go food shopping buys more food than someone who is satiated and does the same shopping.
These are mostly harmless. What if the story we hear all of our lives about how the world works is so different from so many others. We start to think we're not all Americans, we're black and brown and white and shades in between. As much as I want to think that my benevolent way of looking at the world is available to anyone of any age, any color, any schooling level, any state, any county, any gender, I have to double check my sense of reality almost as much as I doubted it when I first heard that sound clip game.
The more that I engage with and am confronted with racial differences the more I uncover about my own perspective. While being white is not the only thing I am and as obvious as I think that is, I am realizing that for people of color, the color is the first thing and maybe the only thing other. Recently I was asked to step down from being in a group because I am white and a minister. It was all in the name of fair representation and I was all for that. But I found it ironic that I grew up thinking I could do anything I wanted to do even though I was a woman because others had shattered that ceiling for me in my lifetime. Even the stained glass ceiling had been shattered for me so becoming a minister wasn't as cutting edge as those who went there first. But already in my career, being a woman and white and a minister was actually a downfall, and no longer the new thing to be celebrated. The irony was that the shattered walls and ceilings that shaped my life and choices available to me, became almost obsolete in such a short period of time. How long will any changes that happen today last?
And yet, changes need to happen anyway. Black lives matter is a movement, not a group, not an organization, certainly not a terrorist organization. How long do people with black skin have to wait? Immigrants have rights that have been shattered with deathly results for too long. The narratives that make up our young country's story are splitting us in pieces instead of joining us together. If we don't change some of the narratives we are in trouble.
In the world of fast flying information discovering the truth becomes much more than trying to see another perspective. The truth about so many things has become so elusive that many of us have begun do doubt our own ability to discern right from wrong. It seems as though the story that is told the loudest and repeated the most is the one that the masses believe. When I say the masses, I mean myself in some circumstances and not in others.
History will always be told by the powerful, is what we are told. But I don't believe that. I believe that Jesus came to defy that version of the story. Jesus continued the story of a delivered people, and brought the Exodus story to life for his followers in a new way. As children of that same promise of delivery from our own stuck places we have the power to write history in a new way. We white middle class folks are used to having history written from our perspective, but if we pay attention and reflect and learn – and engage in the new story we want to see – then the history our children and grandchildren learn will be about that time when we finally have had enough. That time when people began to run into so many crazy new and incomprehensible happenings that they broke the mold and began to create new types of relationships, new types of stories, new more gracious perspectives of one another. That time when dishonest power hungry self serving people found themselves without a following.
The good news about the Exodus and deliverance for the Israelites is that it can happen at any time. Let's work for it to happen now.
2 New Interpreters Bible Commentary, p.779, Walter Brueggemann
Reverend Debra McGuire
October 4, 2020