10/2/16 – Exodus 12:1-13, 29-32; 13:3-8 – Liberating the Benefactors of Oppression
Posted on October 3, 2016 | Posted by Pastor Daniel
Pastor Daniel’s Sermon for October 2, 2016 on Exodus 12:1-13, 29-32; 13:3-8
“A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” These words at the start of Exodus mark the transition from the story of Joseph to the story of the Exodus. “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” There’s a lot in those words. Joseph, you might recall, had found favor in Pharaoh’s sight. He was given a privileged seat in Egypt. But this new Pharaoh didn’t know that. Joseph, you might recall, had saved Egypt. Or rather, God had used him to save Egypt from drought. A debt of sorts was owed to Joseph and his people. But this new Pharaoh didn’t know that. Joseph, you might recall, was the great-grandson of Abraham. He was an heir to the promises of land and descendants and blessing. God promised to use Joseph and his people to bless the world. But this new Pharaoh didn’t know that.
And so, many years, perhaps centuries after Joseph, his people, the Israelites, became an unknown people. And as is so often the case, they then became feared and hated. You could say there was a ‘race relations’ problem between the Egyptians and the Israelites, but that would be underselling it. The Israelites were oppressed. Enslaved. Eventually, Pharaoh even attempted genocide by trying to kill a generation of boys. Things were bad.
You can imagine the Israelites whispering to one another at night, longing to be free, hatching up plans to escape. But to where? Plus, it would have been dangerous. Pharaoh was so ruthless. So they kept quiet in public. Meanwhile their nighttime hatchings and cries all rise up to God, who hears them. God, who remembers promises made. There arose a king who did not know Joseph, but God knew Joseph. And God intends to liberate his people.
A battle ensues. A battle between God and Pharaoh for the Israelites. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen, with devastating plagues instead of planned offenses between armies. If you haven’t read it, give it a try. As usual, the book is better than the movie. The battle truly is between God and Pharaoh, not Egypt and Israel. God continually showing power and strength and an unbending desire to bring the people out of Egypt. And Pharaoh showing such stubbornness, unwilling to release this people he fears and hates. If you read through it, it starts to feel like the tenth and final plague is almost inevitable. Like this is what it’s going to take for Pharaoh to surrender. It’s going to take the returning of his own horrific act upon him. The firstborn sons of Egypt will die. And only then will Pharaoh let the Israelites leave. He’ll demand it, in fact. It’s almost more of an eviction than an escape.
As an aside, what makes this battle between God and Pharaoh so hard for us is that the collateral damage is immense, especially in this last plague. It’s not just Pharaoh who loses a child, but every Egyptian. And at the hand of God, no less. And there may be good reasons for the plague, but nothing that makes it palatable. Maybe we should be bothered by the violence. Maybe it disturbs us because it’s disturbing. The Jewish tradition includes a story of God admonishing the angels for rejoicing when the Egyptians perish. We can debate if it was necessary or right for God to act so, but it’s a devastating story either way.
In the middle of the story, before the Israelites leave, in fact before the plague even hits, we’re interrupted by a description of how this whole thing should be remembered. You’d think that on that fateful night the focus would be on the mechanics of survival, but that’s accomplished by God, so almost all that’s said is about how to remember this later on. This whole thing has an eye toward future generations.
Because this event, this act of a God who remembers the people, a God who knew them when Pharaoh did not. This event of liberation becomes the defining event for the people for generations to come. They’ll set their calendars by it. They’ll reenact it every year, entering into the story of this rushed exodus. They’ll eat the same unleavened bread and tell the same stories.
For centuries, millennia they won’t just remember God liberating the people, they’ll join in the liberation. God interrupts the story, to give instructions so that later generations can join them at that table. So that later generations can also become the liberated, it will be what defines them from that point on. And it will define God, too. God the liberator; they the liberated.
Many centuries later, at one of these Passover meals, one of these meals of remembrance, Jesus sat down to eat with twelve of his disciples. And just like the night of that first Passover, this too was an interruption in a liberating event.
As Jesus sat down at that table he took the meal that had been given to them centuries earlier and made something new out of it, a new meal. In this new meal, which we call communion, we also remember and enter into a liberation that happened long ago. A violent liberation. One that took place on a cross and in a tomb. But in the story we enter into with this new meal, the liberating God is not the final violent actor in a battle. Rather, God is the final victim. And in this new meal, it is not a specific people invited to remember, but all people. The Passover meal was transformed by Christ for us. That we might also become a people known as a liberated people with a liberating God.
It’s beautiful, isn’t it? The idea that as we each kneel around this table, we become the liberated, again and again. Liberated from sin and death and the way they always try to define us and hold us down. Liberated from fear and hopelessness. Liberated from purposelessness, as we are called to share this liberation. It might not be what you always think about as you kneel at that table, receiving the tiny bread and wine, but I invite you to think to yourself while you receive it “Whew! I’m liberated!”
There’s just one wrinkle here that hasn’t let me go this whole week. When I think back on that first Passover meal, the one that our new meal of communion is rooted in, I can’t help but realize that most of us in this room have more in common with the Egyptians than the Israelites.
The Israelites were an oppressed people. I’d bet even before they were enslaved. And, had there been a movement to end their slavery, they probably would have been second class citizens afterwards, too.
The Egyptians on the other hand, had it much differently. And I’m not talking about Pharaoh or his cronies. I’m talking about your average Egyptian. The ones who worked at the bank and taught in the school and coached their kids’ soccer team. They weren’t the oppressors. They didn’t own all these Israelite slaves – that was reserved for the few in power. But they were privileged. They got to have homes and jobs and freedom and access that the Israelites didn’t have. They may have even benefited from the Israelites’ oppression. From the roads and structures they built.
We in this room aren’t oppressors, either. But we are privileged. Most of us have benefited from the money, education, and zip codes we were born into. Most of us have benefited from our race. And maybe we’ve even benefited from oppression. From land that was taken many years ago for our ancestors to have and fortunes that were built on the backs of slaves or underpaid outcasts of society. Maybe we’ve benefited from cheap gadgets and clothing made by the global poor. From housing laws and education that were designed for us and skipped over others because of race. We aren’t oppressors, buy are we benefactors of oppression?
I mention all of this to ask a really hard question for me: What does it mean for us to join in this meal? What does it mean for us to call ourselves the liberated, when in this world we aren’t the ones who need the most liberation?
Tough question. Two responses. First, for most of us here, to eat this bread means to cast off our power and privilege, our positions bolstered by old oppressions, and identify with those who are still being liberated. We might not actually give up our houses and jobs and education – not sure that would do much good anyway. But, by removing the mantle of privilege, we might be able to join with those still being liberated, walk with them and aid them in their liberation.
You see this when you set aside your home for the evening and eat in the church basement with those IHN families who have no home. You see this when you set aside your presumptions and ask someone black what it’s like to live afraid in your own city. You see this when you set aside your cheap gadget to learn about the poor girl who made it on the other side of the world and give your money to an organization that aims to make life better for her.
One author said that the Passover meal is an antidote to cruelty. Throughout the Old Testament, the meal serves as a reminder to the people that they were once slaves in a foreign land, and so they ought to show compassion to those oppressed among them. By identifying themselves in this meal as the liberated, they were able to walk with those whom God was still at work liberating.
And the same is true for us. In this meal of liberation, we cast aside the worldly mantles of privilege and prestige, and pick up instead that unfamiliar mantle of freedom, that we might walk with those who are not yet free, are not yet liberated, are not yet living the full life.
But that can only happen when we ourselves are also liberated – which is my second response to that tough question. What does this meal mean for us who have more in common with the Egyptians than the Israelites? Well, we need to be liberated, too.
Because those mantles of prestige and power and privilege: they might give us comfort, but they also become a prison. We have to maintain them, defend them. They force us to be less compassionate, less willing to side with the poor, the minority, the other. They make us afraid of losing what we always assumed ‘ours.’ It’s exhausting, isn’t it? We have more in common with the average Egyptian in this story than the average Israelite, but maybe the average Egyptian needed liberation, too.
So come one and all to this meal. This sacramental meal of remembrance. God who grants freedom and life invites you. In this meal you will walk with those still being liberated in this world. In this meal, you are counted among the liberated. In this meal, you are set free to live. Amen.