Christians are a people of memory. We are a community called together by memory; called to remember. Our central act of worship is a memorial and a re-enactment; but more than that we enter into the story itself as we remember God’s saving acts and participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
But as we all know, memory is a fickle thing. In our own lives, there are stories we’ve told ourselves, stories about us others have told us that might not bear up to close scrutiny and as we age, some of those stories fade into mist or even oblivion.
As a nation, we are struggling right now with the story we tell about ourselves—as people of color challenge many of the core beliefs and stories of American history. And as we struggle, we enter into conflict because the stories we tell ourselves are often shaped by narrow perspectives. We see how that struggle is played out in the battle over confederate monuments, and in our own Episcopal Church, the battle over stained glass windows and other monuments to the confederacy.
This week, we have seen another crisis in the story we tell ourselves—Are we a nation of immigrants, welcoming all, the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to be free; or will we turn our backs on young people who grew up here—who consider themselves American and often know no other home.
Tomorrow, many of us will remember the events of 9-11-2001, now sixteen years ago. We remember the shock, the devastation, the sudden silence in our skies and on our highways as for a few days, we reckoned with horrific tragedy. But we are less likely, or unwilling to remember the sixteen years of war that have followed from that event, the violence and suffering that has been experienced across the Middle East and into Central Asia; the extrajudicial killings and drone warfare; the torture.
We see that same dynamic played out in scripture, as the authors and editors tell the story they want preserved. At the same time, they often reveal alternative or counter-stories that raise questions about their perspective. Nowhere is this more true than in the story from Hebrew Scripture we just heard; God’s instructions to Moses and the Hebrews on how to prepare for Passover. This event may be the key story in all of Hebrew Scripture—It describes God’s nature as the Hebrews and then Jews experienced God. It also defines the Hebrews and then the Jews as God’s people.
The story of Passover describes God’s liberation of the Hebrew people from bondage. It’s the story that Jews continue to tell and re-enact each year both because it celebrates God’s salvation of God’s chosen people and because it identifies contemporaries Jews as part of that larger story, part of God’s salvation history.
Passover is a celebration of Israel’s liberation by Yahweh; but it is set in the context of a larger story. We’ve heard parts of that story over the last few weeks—of Moses’ birth and rescue by Pharaoh’s daughter, the burning bush and God’s call to him. Between that event and today’s readings unfold the familiar story of the plagues. The instructions for the Passover come in the midst of the tenth plague—Yahweh’s killing of the first-born of Egypt, horrendous suffering.
One might expect that the mood of Passover is joyous, but in the verses that were read, there is a stress on Yahweh’s judgment as well as on liberation. The joy of liberation is tempered by the reality that liberation came at a horrific price. We haven’t heard these weeks the stories of all the other plagues. But this last one, the killing of the firstborn of all Egyptian families, and their livestock, was the culmination of unimaginable violence and suffering. That violence would continue throughout the story—the destruction of the Egyptian army at the Red Sea, and later during the conquest of Canaan, as God demanded that the Hebrews kill everyone whom they encountered. But that will come later.
Back to the story of the Passover. There’s another important element, here. Liberation too is not self-evident. The command to eat while dressed for a journey and to eat hurriedly gives yet another note of urgency. The Hebrews may be free, but their enemies were pursuing them.
The raw emotion and violence of the Passover narrative might tempt us to try to smooth its rough edges, to re-interpret it so as to better fit our world view. That would be a mistake. The Passover is the central ritual event in Judaism; its message and its re-enactment have played the leading role in how Jews understand themselves. The instructions to eat hurriedly, dressed as for a journey, put contemporary Jews back into the story of the flight from Egypt. Today’s Jews become Hebrews fleeing Pharaoh as they eat their lamb, bitter herbs, and unleavened bread.
Indeed, Passover is so important in the life of Judaism that early Christians had to reinterpret Passover as they developed their own rituals and theology. Thus, in the Gospel of John, Jesus is crucified as the Passover lamb; in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the last supper Jesus shared with his disciples was the Passover meal, and thus our own Eucharist and our Christology borrow heavily from Passover imagery.
But there is a deep problem here. One the one hand, we have the image of a God, who hears the suffering of God’s people, and intervenes on their behalf. God frees them from their slavery in Egypt and promises that they will possess a fertile land. On the other hand, in the course of gaining their freedom, God wreaks vengeance on the Egyptians. The story of the plagues, read carefully raises profound questions about the nature of God and God’s willingness to destroy human and animal life. Indeed, it is not at clear in the story that either Pharaoh or the Egyptians have any power to avoid the horrible fates that awaited them. They certainly were not given a choice to avoid the final plague. At one point, God told Moses that he was bringing this last plague, the killing of the first-born on Egypt so that “my wonders may be multiplied.”
There’s even today’s psalm which praises God’s vengeance against Israel’s enemies and concludes that all of it is “glory for God’s chosen people.”
It is an image of God with which we should be uncomfortable—hearing this lesson with its promise of the destruction of all the first-born of Egypt, not just humans mind you, but even cattle, that language should make us squirm in our pews. We might be tempted, many of us have been, to put that language and imagery down to the Angry God of the Old Testament, and contrast it with the loving God of the new. That is one of the oldest heresies on the books, and it’s flat out misinterpreting both the Old Testament and the New. There’s plenty of wrath and judgment in the New Testament’s depiction of God, and plenty of love and mercy in the Old Testament’s—we see that in today’s reading from Romans, in which Paul says twice that “love is the fulfilling of the law.”
We are gathering on this beautiful Sunday in Madison as Hurricane Irma has struck the Florida Keys and is moving up the Gulf Coast. We have already seen its destruction in the Caribbean Islands, while residents of Texas deal with the aftermath of Harvey. There was an earthquake in Mexico, and wildfires are raging in the west. The extent and number of these events are apocalyptic; they may remind us of the plagues of Egypt
We look at such events and seek explanations. The size of the hurricanes and fires may in part be attributed to climate change, but the reality of natural disasters, earthquakes, hurricanes, and wildfires cause great damage and cost lives. We want to know why. And sometimes, we want to attribute such events to divine agency; that they are God’s judgment on us, or on the inhabitants of those places where they are occurring. But such attempts are misguided—as Jesus says in Matthew, “the rain falls on the just and the unjust.”
Instead, we should remember another important lesson from our reading of Exodus—God hears and responds to the cries of those who suffer. In the Christian tradition, we see God in Jesus Christ, walking with us, suffering, and dying on the cross. It’s a symbol of God’s presence in the midst of all of the evil and suffering in the world. We should look for signs of God’s presence, God’s love and grace, wherever people suffer, in floods and hurricanes, in the rubble of bombed cities.
As God’s people, we are also called to hear the cries of those who suffer—from hurricanes and earthquakes, yes, but also the cries of the hungry and homeless, the fearful and the hurting. More than that, we are called to respond to those cries, to work to end their pain, to bring justice and liberation to the oppressed, the enslaved, the incarcerated.
And to bring us full circle, we are called by God, as a people and community of memory, to tell honest stories, about ourselves and about God. Yes, we should celebrate the liberation we have experienced; we should remember and give thanks for the blessings God has given us, but we should also remember and mourn the price that was paid for that liberation and those blessings—the people who suffered because of them, the people who still suffer, and we should, when necessary, repent.