Do you remember the days when parents or grandparents would lovingly pull out their wallets to show you the new school picture of their child/grandchild? Or are you someone who lovingly inserts the best new pictures into your Instagram account? These pictures tell what is most important to us.
Rabbi Adam Morris, consultant to Seasons of the Spirit, says that if the Jewish faith had pictures to tell their important stories, it would have three. One for creation. One for the giving of the law at Sinai. And One for the crossing of the Red Sea—the Exodus, told and retold every year during the celebration of Passover.
“So what?” I can hear someone saying. Why do we care? Why would we spend a good portion of our fall listening to the travelogue of the people of Israel as they leave Egypt and wander around in the Sinai desert for 40 years?
Well, for one, this is our heritage. We are a people of the book (the Bible) and that book contains the stories from creation to revelation. And for another, these are the stories that Jesus was steeped in. He wanted to be in Jerusalem for the Passover. He asked his disciples to make sure the Passover meal was ready. And it was at that commemorative event, that Seder, where the story would have been told again of God saving the lives of the Hebrews and helping to liberate them to a new life. As Jesus looked down on the food at the Seder, as he thought about where his ministry might lead him, he added to the story line. Taking bread from the table, bread that had started the Passover feast with the words, “This is the bread of affliction our ancestor ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat.” Jesus added, “Take, eat, this is my body.”
Bread is the symbol of sustenance, of life. Bread, even the unleavened bread of Passover fuels our bodies for action. But Bread can be more than just a survival tool. Primo Levi in his book If This is a Man talks about his experiences in Auschwitz. In January of 1945 the Nazis left the camp, fearing the Russian advance, and took with them all prisoners except those too ill to move.
Levi, who was left behind, describes how he worked to light a fire and bring some warmth to his fellow prisoners, many of them dying.
When the broke window was repaired and the stove began to spread its heat, something seemed to relax in everyone, and at that moment [one of the men] proposed to the others that each of them offer a slice of bread to us three who had been working. And so it was agreed.
Levi says just a day before this would have been unthinkable. The offer of sharing bread, “was the first human gesture that occurred among us. I believe that that moment can be dated as the beginning of the change by which we who had not died slowly changed from Haftlinge [prisoners] to men again.” (Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks, in Huffpost Blog, 03/23/2013 “Sharing the Bread of Affliction: Passover and the Hidden Meaning of Freedom”)
As we come to the table, and remember our story, we too share bread, we too have the chance to be freed from the past, we too can deepen our humanness, we too can be the ones who reach out to others to share even from our meager supply.
Why is it important to tell this story of the Passover? Because it is a timeless story; It is really a story about God. A story about God being on the side of those who are down and out, a story of impossible changes of heart, a story of action for justice. It is a story about God being for something, and God being against something.
Liberation versus Oppression.
It is the story where God categorically says, “Let my people go.”
And it is important to tell this story because it is the story of God’s people; it is our story. Passover is not just about God’s actions. The story of Passover required something from everyone. Everyone had to eat unleavened bread, every house had to spread blood on its lintel, everyone had to eat standing, ready to go. Everyone had to be ready to flee at a moment’s notice (which has added meaning as we have watched a large swath of our friends and neighbors make such decisions in the light of Hurricane Harvey and Irma’s paths).
And everyone was tasked with telling the story, acting out the story, living the story, from generation to generation. “Why does this night differ from all other nights?” is the question given to the youngest one at the Seder, at the retelling of the Passover, each and every year.
The story of Moses, the story of the Exodus, the story of the God who Passed Over and brought liberation strikes something in the human heart. For we know what it is like to be oppressed: whether in actual slavery, or in chains of our own making. The African-Americans in slavery in this country heard the story of the Exodus and heard God’s voice. “Let my people go” the spiritual declares—and it was talking about more than the Hebrews and the crossing of the Red Sea; it was a not so subtle code for liberation from slavery. William Lloyd Garrison, a famous abolitionist, nick-named one of the most famous conductors on the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman, “Moses.”
As people of color, particularly in Latin America, began to speak their own truth and write their own version of God-talk, theology, in the 1950s and 60s, they named it “Liberation Theology.”
Certainly slavery of one kind or another still exists in our world, even in our very town. All we need to do is open our eyes, as our friends from the Presbyterian presence at the UN reminded us a few years ago. And we are still invited to wear orange on the 24th day of the month in solidarity of those who are yet to escape the modern day slave trade (mostly women).
Why do we tell this story of Passover, of Exodus from Egypt? I return to Rabbi Adam Morris. Exodus is the bridge between creation and redemption. In our faith wallet, Exodus is the picture between Genesis (the beginning of it all) and the giving of the law in the wilderness of Sinai (where God comes down to dwell with God’s people in the tabernacle).
And Passover, the story of the Exodus from Egypt is the story of a people who thought they were nothing, who had learned to think the worst of themselves, and their journey toward being a people with a mission and a charge from God.
The God of Exodus, the God of Passover is a God of freedom and hope. But that freedom comes with obligations. That freedom means working for the freedom of others who are still enslaved.
No wonder Jesus chose this context for trying to impress his message, one last time, on his disciples. No wonder the disciples remembered what had happened on that last night, and each time they took bread, and blessed it, and broke it—each time they lifted high the glass of the fruit of the vine to drink—they were fortified in the work that Jesus had left them to do. You see, at that last Seder, Jesus did not drink the last, the fourth cup of wine. It is what he meant when he said, “I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”
The Passover story, the Exodus story, is our story. It is God’s promise of freedom, and God’s call to us to change our world—until God’s kingdom comes, for all of us.
May it be so, Alleluia, Amen.