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A Meal to Remember

Exodus 12:1-14, 26-27
Rev. Elizabeth Michael
Preached at University Presbyterian Church, Chapel Hill, NC
September 10, 2017

            Last week Kate preached from the third chapter of Exodus; today we pick up in chapter twelve.  I’ll ask your indulgence for a moment as I attempt to cover the ground of those nine intervening chapters before reading today’s lesson.  Last week left Moses standing barefoot beside a burning bush, practicing the message God had given him to carry to Pharaoh.  But every time Moses tries to say aloud those words—“Let my people go”—he gets tongue-tied.  He imagines approaching Pharaoh with a unilateral emancipation proclamation, and the words just get stuck in his throat.

Moses is no fool.  He knows the power of those four short words.  Power enough to shake the very pyramids of Egypt and to topple the throne of Pharaoh.  The God of Israel is calling out the king of Egypt with an audacious message—not only a demand that Pharaoh let the empire’s entire work force walk away free, but also a renaming of the people whose backs Pharaoh is breaking.  It’s a small but significant pronoun: my people.  God gazes on the people whom the world knows as “Pharaoh’s people,” and God says, “No.  You are mine.”  The question that hovers in the background of these early chapters of Exodus is not whether the people will work or walk, but whether they will belong to Pharaoh or to the Lord God.

Sure enough, no sooner does Moses take those words to Pharaoh than fireworks erupt in the form of plagues.  Moses raises his staff, and Pharaoh’s magicians wave their wands, and in no time Egypt’s rivers are running with blood, the riverbanks are crawling with frogs and flies and locusts, the people’s bodies are covered with boils and the earth is covered in darkness.  But as it becomes clear that God is winning, Pharaoh bears down only more mercilessly on the people, pulling the chains of their slavery tighter than ever.

By the time we reach Exodus chapter 12, the drama is at an all-time high.  “This is the night,” God tells Moses.  “One final plague I will bring upon Egypt.  And at its end, Pharaoh will not only let you go; he will drive you away from this land.”  The Lord continues with these words, from Exodus chapter 12:

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 neighbor 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 judgements: 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.

            This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance… And when your children ask you, “What do you mean by this observance?” you shall say, “It is the passover sacrifice to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses.” ’ And the people bowed down and worshipped.

It’s one of those passages that make you realize the Bible should come with a warning label “may not be suitable for all audiences.” A graphic description of a gruesome neighborhood dinner party that ends not with neighbors clinking wine glasses and hugging goodbye, but with every Israelite family in Egypt smearing blood on their doorposts, then ducking for cover while the angel of death passes by.

The pages of Exodus run with blood.  The blood that runs off the backs of the Hebrew slaves as they bend under the weight of their bondage.  The blood that runs through the Egyptian rivers when Pharaoh orders every Hebrew baby boy thrown into them.  The blood that washes up on the banks of the Nile when Moses stretches his staff over it to prove what God can do.  And now the blood of lambs staining the doorposts of the Israelites while death hovers in the air.

This part of Exodus raises all sorts of difficult questions.  Why does God fight chaos with chaos, consistently upping the ante in the war of the plagues?  What about the blood of the Egyptian children, too young to be culpable?  What about that uncomfortable detail about God hardening Pharaoh’s heart?

Those are not the only difficult matters this morning.  I want to say a word here about the danger inherent in positioning one’s self alongside any character or people in a biblical text.  It is a necessary practice in order to find ourselves in the story of God and God’s people, but it is also a hazardous one.  Particularly as our society begins to confront more directly issues of power and privilege, those of us who have been dealt greater portions of each do well to be cautious.  After the rally in Charlottesville last month, I read words of Erna Kim Hackett, a Korean American, and found them convicting.  Why, she wonders, do white American Christians read scripture and imagine themselves as Esther, but never Haman, as Peter but never Judas, as the woman anointing Jesus but never the Pharisees, as the Hebrews escaping slavery, and never Egypt?[1]  To assign ourselves a role in the text without any consideration of the social context in which we find ourselves is, she suggests, very weak biblical work.

I want to take that question seriously, both for sake of good biblical work and for the lives we are trying to offer in response.  In the complex systems that give shape to our world, many (though not all) of us find ourselves near the top of the socioeconomic pyramids that Egypt made visible.  And in the complex character of our own hearts run tendencies both toward faithful seeking and willful disobedience.  We do well to heed both.

Today I’m going to invite us to imagine ourselves alongside the Israelites in this story.  In part because I am still learning to read and preach in any other way.  In part because we who seek to be the people of God need learn from these early ones who were gifted with that claim.  And in part because I understand the wider witness of scripture to be that God is seeking to liberate all people, oppressed and oppressors, from the chains that bind us in these unjust systems.  But I hope as we consider what it means for us to be led out of Egypt today, we might pay special attention to the way that God persistently upsets the power structures of the world, consider our own place in that reshuffling, and seek the radical, but likely costly, freedom that comes with it.

Things are bad in the land of Pharaoh.  Egypt has become a place of violence, oppression, and death.  The action has been moving along fast and furiously in Exodus, a new calamity every few verses, and then as we turn to the story of the Passover, everything slows down.  The voice changes from fast-paced narrative to a deliberate issuing of directions.  It’s as though the chair of the altar guild has broken into the children’s Sunday School lesson, interrupting the story just at its climax with the tedious, step-by-step instructions for preparing the communion table.

Among the many voices that make up the Torah, scholars call this one in chapter 12 the Priestly voice.   It’s the voice that is always concerned with worship, that is ever attentive to fine detail, that slows down every story around it in order to set the stage for the people’s encounter with God.  And so we pause in the chaos of the plagues to hear in painstaking detail how God’s people are to prepare a final meal in Egypt.  And we hear that these instructions are given not just to the slaves, but to their children and their children’s children, so that this meal be not a one-time event, but a ritual.

The Priestly voice breaks in to ensure that this story does not linger in the archives of Israel’s history, to be brought out on occasion and paged through curiously.  By writing this story into Israel’s liturgy, the Priestly voice makes this a living story.  If the unleavened bread can find its way to the bellies of successive generations, then so might the energy and courage that fill the spirits of those who eat it.  Which is why Passover is always celebrated in the present tense: “Why is this night different from every other night?  Because we were slaves in Egypt, and God brought us out from there.”

It is another table we Christians gather around now.  Another night we remember, another blood poured out.  But it is the same God who has been bringing about salvation since the very beginning, breaking into the nights of sorrow and opening doors into the land of freedom.  When we gather around that table, we do more than call to mind the story of a long ago supper.  We participate in it.  As we reach for the body and swallow the blood, we are once again changed from Pharaoh’s people into God’s people, passing through the doorway of death and marching into life.

In my last congregation, we gathered around the communion table every week, and for that fact I was very grateful.  Most often we partook by intinction; each Sunday would find me holding out the bread—Christ’ body, broken for you—or the cup—Christ’s blood shed for you—as, one by one, the congregation came forward to taste the sacred supper. Usually when I spoke the words, people would respond “Thanks be to God,” or “Amen.”  But there was one man among them, Ted Howell, who week by week came forward with a different response.  “Christ’s body, broken for you, Ted,” I would say, holding out the fragment of wafer that had its origin in that long ago meal in Egypt, and Ted would respond “I remember.”  And I loved that.

Because it is so easy to go through ritual mindlessly, and often times, I confess to you, my head would be in one of a dozen different places.  But Ted’s words always brought me back: “I remember,” he would say.  And like waters bursting forth through a dam, behind those words of Ted’s rushed the whole Story.  The upper room, the broken bread, the broken body, the vanishing daylight, the chaos of fearfulness, the blood-streaked doorposts, the Paschal lamb bearing the sins of the world.

“This shall be a day of remembrance for you,” God says to the Hebrews.  “Do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus says to his followers.

I do not know if there is any more critical task for Christians in our current world than to remember.  The storms are constant these days: disorientation is an ever-present companion, distraction an inevitability, and despair a persistent threat.  So much is vying for our attention, so much pulling at us.  It is easy to become unmoored as chaos swirls around us; it is easy to give into the paralysis of the impotent, convincing ourselves that we are destined to dwell in a world of woes.

So there is an urgency to our remembering, to our participating once more in the present tense liturgy that tells us who we are and whose we are.  Walter Brueggemann calls Passover “a festival of urgent departure.”[2]   Year after year it comes, interrupting the lives of the comfortable, the complacent, and the oppressed alike.  It puts unleavened bread on their lips and sandals on their feet and a staff in their hands.  Do not become too accustomed to life in the empire, it says, for even now, God is breaking you free of those bonds.

Exodus is a liberation text.  It’s the tale of alternative possibilities intruding into a world where injustice seems intractable.  Passover is the story of how even the powers which seem most unshakable are cast down from their thrones, and how those who saw no way out and no way forward can suddenly find themselves on the highway out of Egypt.

The pain and the hope are bound up together; those who hear the story cannot be protected from either.  But become a teller and enactor of the story is to cast one’s self firmly on the side of hope, to anticipate that a people who have been long in bondage will yet shake off their shackles, that even now, God is beckoning them into life.

My friend Katie Crowe tells a story that was told in a hospital she once served, where a patient was being treated for a nasty cancer. The patient was given a positive prognosis and assurance from her doctors that she should recover; nevertheless, she believed that she had no hope of survival and she fell into a deep despair, refusing to eat a thing. They tried everything to get her to eat, but her depression killed her appetite, and her health took a turn for the worse. Her doctor, one of the best in the field, was utterly confounded. Her fear and anxiety were attacking her body and spirit; each new day brought increasing desire to live.

So early one morning while her doctor stood in line for breakfast at a small bakery, he spotted a loaf of freshly baked challah. Challah, the bread traditionally eaten on the eve of the Jewish Sabbath, a portion of which is burned to recall Passover feast.  So he purchased a loaf to take to his patient. And as he sat by her bed later that day, the doctor reminded her of God’s provision for the people in the wilderness. Of the manna from heaven that was provided to sustain them when they felt alone and afraid. He recalled for her the Passover feast, the victory of God over tyranny and God’s faithfulness to God’s promises. And he watched as tears streamed down her face when he handed her the loaf and said, “You do not give bread to those for whom you have no hope.”

When she went home from the hospital strengthened and fully recovered, the woman gave the doctor a five-dollar bill and asked if he would be sure that the patient who stayed in the bed after her got a loaf of bread and heard the story of God’s provision for their lives and, if that patient felt so inclined, that he or she would buy a loaf of bread for the person to follow. The gift has grown such that, today, a freshly baked loaf of challah is delivered to every Jewish patient in that massive hospital on the eve of the Sabbath, and the story of God’s faithfulness is told again and again. [3]

Be it matzo or manna, challah or communion loaves, God does not give bread to those for whom there is no hope.  Long ago the people ate the hurried bread and stepped through doorways stained with blood; long ago God became the broken bread, only to step through the doorway of a tomb.  This is our story.  Let us keep the feast and the faith.

[1] Erna Kim Hackett, http://feistythoughts.com/2017/08/23/why-i-stopped-talking-about-racial-reconciliation-and-started-talking-about-white-supremacy/

[2] Walter Brueggemann, New Interpreter’s Bible, Exodus, vol. 1.

[3] The Reverend Katie Crowe, “Hunger Pains,” preached at Trinity Avenue Presbyterian Church, August 5th, 2012, accessible at http://trinityave.org/printed-sermons.

Elizabeth Michael , Interim Associate Pastor

Email: elizabeth@upcch.org

Phone: (919).929.2102 ext. 112

Bio:

Elizabeth joined the staff in September of 2016 and counts it a tremendous privilege to learn and grow alongside the saints of University Presbyterian. A native North Carolinian, Elizabeth studied music and religion at Presbyterian College and received her M. Div. at Princeton Seminary. Her life and ministry have been shaped by work with Presbyterian churches in South Africa, a season of living in intentional community alongside the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC, and the chance to be a part of a team welcoming home citizens returning from incarceration. Her spiritual life has been consistently nourished by immersion in the community of faith, most recently at Trinity Avenue Presbyterian Church in Durham, where she served as Associate Pastor for seven years. Elizabeth has a deep love for Christ's Church, a deep hope in the gospel's reconciling work in the world, and a deep joy in the life of ministry. At UPC, Elizabeth offers support to the church's caregiving and worship ministries, among others. Outside of work, she tries to take full advantage of her library card, the local food scene, national parks, and friends who live in places fun to visit.