Sunday, October 04, 2020

An Urgent Need for Community -- a sermon on the first passover (Exodus 12 & 13)

Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St. John’s

An Urgent Need for Community

Exodus 12.1-13, 13.1-8 (NRSV)

4 October 2020, NL3-4, Becoming God’s People 4

Last week we heard the story of Joseph and his brothers and how the family of the Israelites ended up in Egypt. They grew and were prosperous and safe there…until a new king rose over Egypt, who did not remember Joseph and his leadership in the previous crisis, or how these foreign people came to have such an integral place within the nation. That pharaoh began to imagine that the Israelites were dangerous, and so shifted the policy and the culture of Egypt until the Israelites ended up oppressed and enslaved, and the Egyptians were commanded to throw the Israelite children into the Nile to die. As a baby, Moses was drawn out of the Nile by Pharaoh’s daughter, and brought up as her own. After an altercation that ended with him killing an Egyptian taskmaster, he fled into the desert, where he married and looked after the flocks of his father-in-law. God met him out in the desert, in a bush that was aflame yet not burned up, and called him to go back to Egypt to set his people free. Moses and his brother Aaron had a number of conversations with Pharaoh in which Pharaoh refused, and so God began to send plagues on Egypt. We pick up the story in between the ninth and tenth plagues, on the eve of the Israelites’ escape from Egypt, in the book of Exodus, chapter 12, verses 1-13, and then continuing at chapter 13, verses 1-8. I am reading from the New Revised Standard Version.

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 neighbour 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 judgments: 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.

And continuing in chapter 13: 

The Lord said to Moses: Consecrate to me all the firstborn; whatever is the first to open the womb among the Israelites, of human beings and animals, is mine.

Moses said to the people, “Remember this day on which you came out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, because the Lord brought you out from there by strength of hand; no leavened bread shall be eaten. Today, in the month of Abib, you are going out. When the Lord brings you into the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, which he swore to your ancestors to give you, a land flowing with milk and honey, you shall keep this observance in this month. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a festival to the Lord. Unleavened bread shall be eaten for seven days; no leavened bread shall be seen in your possession, and no leaven shall be seen among you in all your territory. You shall tell your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.’

Over the past 450 years, some things had changed. When Joseph’s family arrived in Egypt, they were welcomed, they settled in the fertile land of the Nile Delta, they raised their families and got on with life. Over time, though, things started to change. Slowly at first…a slight shift here, a minor move there. And most people don’t pay much attention to politics, as they’re focused on their farms and families. Eventually, though, the culture and economy and politics had moved so far to one side that it started to be a little concerning…but what can you do? We learned to live with it, because it is what it is, after all. You can get used to just about anything, adjust and adapt…and that’s true on both sides of the story. The people who were being oppressed found ways to cope, and the people doing the oppressing found ways to justify it. By the time we get to enslaving the neighbours and attempting genocide, we’re like the proverbial frog in the pot of water. We’ve gotten so used to the way things are, that even a series of disasters just starts to feel like another headline in the endless news cycle. What can we do, but lament that things aren’t like they used to be, and then turn our attention back to the work right in front of us, hoping someone, somewhere, will do something about that bigger issue before it gets any worse?

We may recognise that sense of dejected apathy or complacency…and that moment is the one where God broke in and said “something new is about to happen, and it’ll be so big you’ll literally need a new calendar. It’ll be like nothing you’ve ever seen. Get ready. Put on your shoes, pack your bags, grab the keys, throw the dough on the fire without waiting for it to proof, you don’t even have time to boil water for soup, just roast the lamb whole…honestly, hurry up, people!”

I wonder if the Israelites understood the urgency of the situation, or if they thought “but we’ve been living with this for ages, what’s the rush?” After all, when God commands this ritual, they don’t yet know that they are going to be leaving Egypt that night — it isn’t until after all the instructions are given that they find out that the tenth plague is coming, and even then, God doesn’t say they’re going to be running for their lives and heading for the sea and the desert on the other side, only that there will be deaths among the Egyptians. So why did they need to hurry? They were used to this.

If we are able to recognise ourselves and our current situation in this biblical story, then what is it that might be this urgent now? We’ve gotten used to the political atmosphere and believing we can’t do much about it, we’ve decided to just cope with an economic system that destroys the environment and privileges a very few while the rest are expendable, and we have become complacent about a culture that is more about us-and-them divisions than about welcome and inclusion and wholeness. Every time we adapt without pushing back on a move that shifts those things even more to one side — whether it’s floating the idea of creating a migrant-processing island; or closing the ICU at the hospital in the most deprived area of the country; or letting some people get away with breaking the law or lying even though they put others at risk; or both companies and governments greenwashing their policies while still spending money on fossil fuels behind the scenes — we are making it even harder to see the urgency of God’s call to a new thing. 

The Israelites may not have understood what the big rush was, any more than we do most of the time. But the ritual that God commanded them to do was designed to help them get ready for the big changes that were coming. 

It may seem on the surface like having a particular evening meal cooked in a particular way and while sitting in a particular position wouldn’t make much difference. But the reality is that when they participated in this religious ritual, it prepared their minds and hearts for what God was doing next. Choosing a lamb and looking after it for a few days to be sure it was perfect meant that their attention would be focused and their sense of personal investment would be heightened. Smearing the blood on the doorposts meant that they were declaring their membership as part of this family of faith, and their trust that God was in their midst that night. Knowing that the entire community was preparing the same meal on the same night meant that their sense of community spirit and togetherness would increase. Cooking and eating in a hurry, with their shoes and coats on and their bags in their hands, meant that they had that adrenaline rush of excitement and nerves that they were living through history being changed.

And they were. This moment in history, when the Israelites left Egypt, will be the moment that God uses to define Godself from now on. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt” will be the way God speaks and is described throughout the rest of history, so it isn’t only the people who are being told that this is the first month, the beginning of a new calendar and new sense of time — that’s true for God too. This is the defining moment for God and for God’s people. It is so important that they’re told, as we heard, to be careful to remember, so they can observe these traditions and tell the stories to the next generation, so that hopefully they too will remember the urgency of God’s liberating love.

So what’s urgent now? And how might God be calling us to get ready for a new thing, even though we don’t understand it yet? What spiritual practices would help us to get ready? 

There can be a lot of different answers to that, of course. Though there is one little line in today's reading that I think might be a word for us today. It’s a line that’s easy to gloss over, but in our current environment it speaks volumes. In chapter 12 verse 4, it says “If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbour in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it.” In other words, no one is to be left out of this ritual preparation for God’s new thing. The entire community is to ensure that every single household can participate. No family is too small or too poor to be included, and it is the responsibility of the larger or wealthier family to divide up their lamb to include their neighbours. 

Now, this would require actually knowing our neighbours, both who they are and how they are. It would require taking initiative to reach out and offer. It would require every single one of us noticing each other and taking every step to ensure that everyone is included and welcomed. Even though this first passover was celebrated with every family in their own homes, the whole community worked together to make certain that no one was left out or went without. And even though the command was urgent and hurried, they were still to make time to care for everyone.

In a world that is fractured and fearful and often complacent about the precipice on which we stand, we have an urgent need for community. More than ever it is crucial to bring people together, regardless of their status or their ability to buy in. Every single person in the community is important and we do not get to simply overlook God’s command to include them and care for them, no matter how inconvenient or expensive it might be for us — and that should be reflected in our political, economic, cultural, and relational decisions. Ultimately, it will be all of us together that participate in this ritual meal, and all of us together that walk through the red sea, and all of us together that will walk in the wilderness, all of us together that make up the Body of Christ…it takes all of us together to become God’s people.

May it be so. Amen.

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