Here is my sermon for the Sunday during Passover (also Palm Sunday), titled
Living a Visionary Life Series
“Right Relationship #5: The Quest for Freedom”
Rev. Bob Janis-Dillon
The First Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Hunterdon County
April 13, 2014
For thousands of years, Jewish families have gathered together, every spring, to tell a story, the story of their people. We don’t know for sure when the first Passover Seder was celebrated – tradition has it that it was the year after the Jews finished their wanderings in the promised land. Though there’s no way to prove that, historians are pretty sure the “modern” Jewish seder has been celebrated for many centuries. Curiously, it shows many similarities to the Symposia of Ancient Greece, a regular gathering of thinkers like Plato to celebrate life, eat a meal, and ponder important questions. It’s possible the Seder evolved from Plato’s symposia, but we don’t know that either. What we do know is this story, the story of Passover, has been told for a long, long time.
I’ll try to recap the story here, in the beginnings of this sermon, but it needs to be noted that the story is not traditionally delivered from a pulpit. The story of Passover is told over a meal, a highly symbolic meal, where different items represent different parts of the story. It is told in the evening with family from near and far gathered together, with discussion and music and much eating and drinking. You don’t even begin to tell the story until after the first cup of wine, which seems very sensible to me. We had our own Seder here Friday night, when we did just that, but for today I invite you to think of us as your family. It’s not the beautiful quiet of the evening, but it is a beautiful day. And coffee hour will need to serve as our feast. And so, here is the story:
The Israelite people, the story goes, were slaves in Egypt. They were treated harshly by the overseers, and were powerless people in the most powerful land on earth. Moses was an Israelite, but by a quirk of fate was raised by Pharaoh’s own daughter. Moses ran away from home one day, after he intervened in a fight to protect a powerless slave being beaten up. He went out to the hill country and became a shepherd. One day, on an ordinary hillside in the middle of nowhere, Moses saw a burning bush and God spoke to him through that bush. God said that Moses should return to his people, the Jewish people, and free them from slavery.
Moses was happy enough as a shepherd, but he could not let his people remain in slavery, so he heeded God’s voice and returned to his people. When he got there, a new Pharaoh was in charge of the land. Moses demanded the Israelite be freed, but Pharaoh said no. So one after the other, ten plagues were visited on the Egyptian people. After every plague, Pharaoh refused to let the Jewish people go, because he believed they were his possessions. And so the Egyptians suffered, the story goes, through the river Nile being turned to blood, through frogs, locusts and lice in great numbers, through blight, boils and hail. Even after God turned day into night, and the people were terrified, still Pharaoh did not relent. Finally, Moses told Pharaoh that if he did not let the Jewish people go free, God would kill the firstborn of all the Egyptians.
On that terrible night, God instructed the Israelites to put lamb’s blood on their doorways, so that God would pass over those households, leave them be, and destroy the firstborn of every other household, from the firstborn of Pharaoh to the firstborn of his lowliest slave, and even the firstborn of the cattle. It was a night of death, and afterward Pharaoh, staggering from the awful calamity, let the Jewish people go free. But then Pharaoh changed his mind, and went after Moses and the Israelites. The Israelite were frightened of the advancing army, but Moses told them to “wade in the water”, go into the Red Sea, and when they did so God parted the Red Sea in two so they could get through. The Jewish people walked on dry land to safety, and when they were followed by Pharaoh’s army, God drowned the entire army in the Red Sea. The Jewish people wandered in the desert for forty years, and then, one day, found the promised land.
Now, thankfully for our Egyptian sisters and brothers, there is not a shred of historical evidence that all of this really happened. Ancient Egypt contains a lot of written records, and if the eldest child in every household in Egypt died overnight, someone would have said something. Locusts, frogs, and the Nile river running red, on the other hand, were common occurrences, and happen in Egypt to this day. We don’t know how much of the story is metaphorical, but if it were merely a literal story, it would not have the power it has today. For the truth is we are always living this story. There are still slaves in the world today. There are still people yearning for freedom.
There is still the sense of Passover. To be spared some terrible thing. If you’ve ever waited for a diagnosis, and it comes back negative, you know something of passover. And you can ask, “why did my cancer diagnosis come back negative, and my neighbor’s is positive?” There’s no real answer to that question here on earth. We can examine all the medical factors; we can question God on selective punishment, but we can’t really answer the question. But we can think of all the ways we are spared. And for those who have had cancer here, in this congregation, they know grace comes in a thousand different forms. You get the positive diagnosis, and you ask why, but then, you find there are still many good things in life. It’s not your time to go yet. The blood is on the doorway, you have been scarred, but you are passed over for death, you still have a journey ahead of you.
And then comes the journey through the wilderness. You’d think, after 463 years of slavery, according to the Bible, after ten terrible plagues, after the water of the Red Sea splits into two, you’d think that would be a wonderful time, that happiness would come. But it’s not the happy ending we might expect. No, the Israelite people wander in the desert for forty years. Things get so tough, in the desert: looking for food and water, not sure if you’re going to die there, the uncertainty about what comes next. Things get so tough many people wish they were back in slavery. Again, don’t think this story belongs in the ancient Middle East. A person today gets out of an abusive marriage, and the freedom is terrifying. They’re in the wilderness. They don’t know what to do with themselves, life is still really, really unsure and unsafe – they’re still in the wilderness. Part of them thinks they’d be better off in the hell they knew then this horrible purgatory.
I ask you, where are you in this story? Are you a slave in Egypt? I hope that no-one here is a literal slave – and let us be reminded that there are people held against their will in our world, and even in our country – but maybe you identify with the Jewish slaves in other ways. Maybe your life doesn’t feel free for one reason or another. There are many different ways to oppress a people, and maybe you are feeling oppressed by the lack of opportunities in our economy, by not being able to make your own life. You may be hoping for some deliverance.
Or maybe you are in the wilderness: maybe you are embarking on some new stage in life, and you haven’t yet found your footing. You know the promised land is out there somewhere, but you are caught between the structure of what you know, and the vision of what you hope to be your life someday. You are caught in the in-between. You could be making that first step into the Red Sea – knowing you can’t finish your journey without help, not sure if that help is going to come, but knowing to that you need to make the first step anyway. Or maybe you are in the promised land, a time of blessings in your life, looking back on the hard times. Of course, the promised land – the land of milk and honey the Jewish people were looking for – and the wilderness are not as clearly delineated in life as the are in story. Some days your life may feel like the promised land, some days more like the wilderness.
We all find ourselves in the story in different places. As someone of half-Jewish background, I celebrate my ancestry with the Passover Seder every year. But I also recognize I am as much the oppressor as the oppressed. My heart goes out to the Palestinian people, suffering in an uncertain status, removed from their lands, the so called “promised land”, in a tragedy of might and power and unfulfilled promises. And my other half is British, and between the British of my ancestry and the Americans of my citizenship, we have oppressed just about everyone throughout the globe. I think of this not to make myself feel guilty, but to be aware. Maybe I won’t always be the hero of the story, the people led by Moses or the civil rights marchers led by Dr. King in Birmingham. But maybe, some days, it is enough to not be the villain. I know in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and 1970s and for African-Americans and women and the ongoing civil rights struggles for Native peoples in this land, they have been led by the oppressed people themselves, pretty much always, but there have also been any number of white, straight, privileged men who have responded by, “you know what? You’re right, this oppression is wrong, this privilege is undeserved, what can we do about that?” And have rolled up their sleeves and sat at the table to try to make a better world. The choice is not always between Pharaoh and Moses. Sometimes you find you are participating in oppression somehow, in some direct or indirect way, but as soon as you realize that you have the opportunity to participate in liberation.
You see what I’m getting at? – the Passover story is a metaphorical story that we live again and again. This is because the struggle for freedom happens again and again. If we make the struggle for freedom a literal story that only happens once, we sacrifice the whole power of the story. If July 4th is simply about a battle that happened 200 years ago, it is merely a nostalgic and empty patriotism. These celebrations of freedom must recognize the movements toward freedom in our own lives, how we are still working for freedom.
And freedom isn’t individual, it’s collective. If I’m free and you’re not, that’s not freedom.
Today is a special day in the Christian tradition, as I mentioned, the day of Palm Sunday. The palm in the Roman world was a sign of victory. When Jesus came to Jerusalem, on the week of Passover, the people greeted him with palm leaves. This was how the Romans greeted one of their military heroes. But Jesus would bring no military victory. Jesus understood the liberation of Passover was not one of one army over another. Jesus decided to be with the people, to preach with his presence that we all must be there for each other. When he said that he was the Passover lamb, this has long been interpreted to mean that as long as you have Jesus you’re protected. This is not the Jesus I know, however. The Jesus I know, who speaks out of the Jewish tradition, says that in this world of misery, of terrible things happening to good people, of oppression and man’s inhumanity to man, it is our responsibility to protect one another. It is our responsibility to stand in one another’s doorways and say, we are in this together, come what may. The quest for freedom is not something that is ended by some single event, whether it be the exodus from Egypt or the death and resurrection of Christ. The quest for freedom is an ongoing process of responsibility to one another in the context of our shared freedom. As the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau put it, “we are born free, and everywhere we are in chains.” If we do not use our freedom to liberate one another, that freedom will not last long.
Just look at the plagues that afflict us now. War, endemic poverty, global warming. Ash and smog in the sky and a stripped wasteland in the ground. The rivers running polluted, the water running out in some places in this country. Just like the ancient Egyptians, we are creating technological marvels through oppressed people. The pyramids were a little more impressive than the iPad, but it’s the same principle, isn’t it? We extend credit to our poorest people as a means of control, keeping them under our thumb, making a tidy profit in the process. Lice and frogs? That’s child’s play, compared to what we can accomplish now.
So the question now is as it ever was: how do we use our freedom? What is the victory we seek with our lives? If we try and conquer the world through might, if we seek to make ourselves comfortable, well we might succeed. But it won’t amount to much in the final analysis. But if we live for others – if we extend our reach into making this world meaningful, within our own lives but also in the lives of others – if we live in right relationship with each other, with all people’s of the world, and with the world that gives us breath and freedom – maybe this will be a victory worth celebrating.