Exodus 12 & 13
We all have moments in our lives when everything changes. Something shifts, something significant, and we are never the same. These changes become part of who we are, how we understand ourselves. This morning we are going to reflect on one of the stories that shapes the identity not only of the ancient Hebrew people, but this event also shapes the very identity of God. It is a defining moment, and one that echoes through history and is lived out again and again, even in our own lives. I’m talking about the Passover, which is the climax of the story of the Exodus.
Last week’s story ended with the death of Joseph, and his reminder to his brothers’ families that God would bring them to the land promised to their ancestors. But that doesn’t happen quickly. As you probably remember from movies like The Ten Commandments and Prince of Egypt, the ancient Hebrew people, the descendants of Joseph and his brothers were slaves in Egypt for 430 years. Finally, God sends Moses to lead the people out, but Pharaoh refuses to let them go. Even after nine plagues, Pharaoh’s heart remains hard. But as we said last week, when God has a plan, it will not be thwarted. One final plague comes to Egypt: the death of all firstborns, from Pharaoh’s family to the livestock. Yet the angel of death passes over the houses of the Hebrews who have marked their doorposts with the blood of a sacrificial lamb. On this dreadful night, the people eat a meal of the lamb and bitter herbs and bread that has not had time rise. God instructs them to eat this meal with their shoes on their feet and their walking sticks in their hands. They are to eat in haste because this final plague will convince Pharaoh to let God’s people go.
This is the turning point in the story, a moment so important that it is not only remembered, but the meal is reenacted and the story retold every year in every Jewish household. It is the meal that Jesus and his disciples were eating at the last supper. The Passover meal is the basis for our Communion. So before we celebrate Communion this morning, I want us to reflect for a few moments about the significance of this event.
God had promised to Abraham and Sarah that their descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky and that they would have a land of their own, a place where they belonged, a home. But generations moved about as noamads, and lived and died in forced labor without seeing God’s promise fulfilled for themselves. And yet the promise lived on, passed in hope from parents to children, held in trust despite all evidence to the contrary. When the promise is fulfilled, the fulfillment becomes the identity of this people and their God. Throughout the rest of the Old Testament, God is known as the God who brought you out of Egypt. This is how God self-identifies when speaking to the people, and how the people identify God when telling their history to one another. Who is God? God is the bondage breaker. God is the one will not allow oppression to run rampant forever. God is the one who sets the captives free. God is the one who provides a home to the homeless. This identity could not be more important or more foundational for all that comes after it. In every generation when the Hebrew children ask at Passover, “Why do we eat this special meal?,” the parents reply, “It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.” God is the God who brought us out of Egypt.
This experience of freedom also becomes essential for how the people understand themselves. Many of the ancient Hebrew laws about how to treat others are based on the reminder of their experience of Egypt. Even the book of Leviticus, which we don’t usually think of as being very gentle, says that God’s people are to love not just their neighbors, but the strangers among them as they loved themselves, and why? Because they were strangers in the land of Egypt. The ancient Hebrew people know themselves to be people who have been set free. That’s one of the key things they remember about their history. They are people who remember what it is like to be slaves and so the don’t take their freedom for granted. (For a while at least.)
In the Hebrew language, the word for Egypt is Mitzrayim, which literally means limitations, restrictions or obstacles. If we see ourselves as the spiritual descendants of these ancient Hebrew people, then we also have been slaves in an Egypt of limitations, restrictions or obstacles, and have now been set free. God is the God who brings us out out limitations, restrictions, and obstacles. And we don’t forget that. We remember what it feels like to be sojourners, to be foreigners, to be slaves far from home. Our God has redeemed us and restored us. To be saved means to be released from limitations, restrictions, and obstacles. This experience of exodus and passover is key to our identity as Christians as well.
So if that’s true, then what do we do about it? If we have been brought out of “Egypt,” set free from limitations, restrictions and obstacles, how now shall we live? What kind of people would we be if we kept our salvation at the forefront of our identity? This is a question that we must each answer for ourselves, but here are some ideas.
If we have been set free from limitations, restrictions and obstacles, there is nothing to fear. We are set free from the bondage of self-doubt, the tyranny of other people’s opinions about us, and the slavery of comparison, whether that’s comparing ourselves to others or comparing others to ourselves. Unless we trust in God’s grace, in what God says about us, we are trapped in an endless cycle of justifying ourselves, trying to make ourselves acceptable, trying to either make up for our sins or pretend they aren’t a big deal. The trouble is our failings, both deliberate and accidental are a big deal. They hurt others and they hurt ourselves and they move us away from participating in God’s Kingdom. Every month when we celebrate Communion, our time of confession begins with the truth, “We confess that we are in bondage to sin and we cannot free ourselves.” This is not designed to instill shame in us, because shame is never part of God’s will for us. Instead it prepares us to experience again the fullness of God’s grace, of God’s freedom.
Even as we affirm this, we need to avoid the temptation of privileged white people to make this too individual or too internal. This is a story about God freeing actual slaves. It has and continues to spark revolutions, to bring hope and courage to people who are being oppressed and marginalized. Every tyrant and every system of oppression eventually fails and we trust that God’s hand it at work behind that. So we must take great care not to ally ourselves with oppression.
In our country, it is almost impossible for white people to avoid it. Each white person, including me and you and all the nice and well meaning white people that you know and love, we all benefit from a historic and ongoing racism that is woven into the fabric of all of our institutions, bureaucracies and systems. As white people who claim to follow a liberating and endlessly gracious God, we are called to acknowledge our privilege. When it fully hits us, we will inevitably feel bad. That uncomfortable feeling is the conviction of the Holy Spirit, which is a gift to us, a powerful nudge to our conscience that we are in the wrong. We can receive that gift allow it to inspire us to change. If instead we let that conviction fester and turn into shame, then we just become self-centered and want to talk about how bad we feel or how we didn’t mean to do anything wrong. That’s what people mean when they talk about white fragility. If we have truly been freed by God and trust in God’s grace, then we can receive the conviction of the Holy Spirit and turn around—which is what the word repent means—we can turn around and begin to live differently. A deep understanding of grace will make us strong and not fragile.
Finally, I want to note that God instructed the people to eat this meal while wearing their shoes and holding their walking sticks, because it was time to go. This morning as we move toward the table of the Lord, I invite you to consider whether you are ready to go. I don’t mean whether you are ready to die. I mean whether you are ready to live. Are you ready to step out when God says it’s time to get moving? Living in freedom means taking risks. Opposing the tyranny of white supremacy and homophobia means being ready to speak up when someone you love tells a hurtful joke or makes a hateful statement. We don’t live in the Kingdom in our heads and our hearts. We live in the Kingdom with our hands and our feet and our mouths. It is a wonderful thing to live as God’s people in the world. And as descendants of Abraham and Sarah, we are not simply blessed to hoard our blessings. We are blessed to be a blessing to the world. And that means making the most of every opportunity God sends us.
And so this morning we come to Christ’s table. Because in our own power, we are not ready to face off with tyrants. In our own strength, we would not lay down our lives for our friends, much less for our enemies. We need an infusion of the life of Jesus, hence the imagery of Christ’s body and blood. At this table we remember that we were foreigners and slaves in Egypt but that God has brought us out. And that we are called to be part of God’s ongoing work to preach good news to the poor, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim freedom for all captives, and release all prisoners from darkness. At this table, we are nourished and refreshed and strengthened. As our ancestors in the faith have insisted for hundreds of years, this is the joyful feast of the people of God, instituted by Jesus as he celebrated the Passover feast. Here, people of all ages, races, and sexes – people in every type of body – come from the north and the south, the east and the west, and are welcomed by Christ, who is the host at all our tables.