First Congregational United Church of Christ
Great Falls, MT
September 10, 2017
Remember and Reflect – But Do not Repeat
The Rev. Lynne Spencer-Smith
The Hebrew people had been slaves in Egypt for years. As time went on, the Pharaohs became more and more demanding on them. God heard their cries and empowered Moses and his brother Aaron to liberate them. Even after a long ordeal of many plagues upon Egypt, Pharaoh would not release them. There was one more plague to come, one that would devastate Egypt. In order to be protected from its effects, the Hebrews were instructed to prepare themselves. The reading for today contains the instructions to the Hebrews and the description of the coming plague. Let us listen to the story as it has been kept for us in the Book of Exodus, chapter 12, verses 1 through 14.
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: 2This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. 3Tell 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. 4If 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. 5Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. 6You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. 7They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. 8They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. 9Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. 10You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. 11This 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. 12For 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. 13The 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. 14This 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.
Several years ago, I had the opportunity to visit a the Air Force Academy outside of Colorado Springs with my dad. He loved airplanes. He loved old military planes. He and my mother were known to take trips to places across the country just to go to Air Force Bases where there were going to be air shows or that had well-stocked museums. My mother, bless her heart, would have much rather visit botanical gardens… but…. She went along.
Apparently, I did as well for some reason and ended up touring the Air Force Academy with my parents. As we visited the ground of the Academy, we took in the display of planes that have been retired and had been placed on the grounds. Many of them from World War 2 days, some from the Vietnam era and later. We stood and marveled at the size of the B-52 and the sleekness of the modern era jets. It’s a beautiful and well done display. As we stood within the shadow of the massive B-52 and read its history, I noted that my father and I were looking at that history, that same history through different lenses. I saw a machine that carried bombs which took lives. He saw a machine that carried bombs which saved them.
Such is the fine line we walk when we step into history and re-tell it. The same event can be seen and interpreted in so many ways. And the farther away from the event, the more likely there are to be pieces of the stories left out.
The story that Bill read for us a few moments ago is a story of the history of what has become one of the most sacred events in the life of our Jewish brothers and sisters: Passover—the great event of God’s salvation of the Hebrew people that led to their liberation from slavery under Egyptian Pharaoh. If we were to follow this story through, we’d get to the other great scene where the Hebrews flee through the parted waters of the red sea and the Egyptian army is swept away by those same waters as God releases them once the chosen ones have made it safely to dry ground on the other side.
As I hear the story, I can’t help but hear, not just the intense anticipation of those who were about to be released from generations of bondage but the pain and agony of those whose firstborns were to die. I can’t help but hear the shouts of joy from Hebrews as they cling safely to the shore. But I also hear the shrieks of terror from the Egyptian soldiers as the waters rushed over them.
When the story is told from the perspective of the Hebrews, it’s a great story of God’s salvation. God had heard their cries, sent Moses, the chosen one to liberate them and crushed the mighty army. It’s recounted numerous times throughout the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament. It is retold and re-lived every year as people around the world celebrate Passover, using the instructions that have been handed down from the text we heard today and many long years of tradition. It’s a powerful story. It’s the foundational story of the Hebrew people. For it is from this event, that God created them to be a people.
But, I’ve often wondered how the story is told from the Egyptian’s perspective? I’ve wondered how God would tell the story. Was this great act of salvation something that saved lives or took them?
Throughout the ages, questions have been asked about how can an all-loving God bring death upon the innocent? If God is the creator of all, how could God will the death of the Egyptians? If God is in control, why are there hurricanes and earthquakes and wildfires? We are left with a lot of questions which usually lead to more questions and very little understanding.
As one way to address such theological conundrums, ancient Jewish scholars developed a collection of commentaries on the early books of the Hebrew scriptures. It’s called “Midrash.” While recognizing the authority of the original texts, Midrash expands, explains reflects upon and adds insight. One such expansion has to do with the dilemma of the all loving God that would send the angel of death upon a nation or release the waters of the sea to drown an army. The Midrash tells of how, as Moses was leading the people through the wilderness, God told him that he would be able to take the liberated Hebrews to the promised land but would not be able to enter it himself. Moses, a bit perplexed argued with God about this decision. “Haven’t I done all you have asked? I left my family and pleaded with Pharaoh to release your people. I have led them to safety and through this wilderness. What have I done to not enter the promised land?”
God replied that as the waters crashed down over the Egyptian army, the soldiers, the horses, the chariots, God looked at Moses and he was smiling. “How could you smile as my Egyptian children were dying?”
We should tell of the great night when God gave a rad-tag, worn out bunch of Hebrew slaves, a way where there was no way. A way that involved the death of a lamb, bread eaten in haste, families sheltered behind blood-smeared doors as the angel of death passing them by. But we should also tell of the heartache of the Egyptian fathers and mothers who held lifeless bodies at the end of that long, terrifying night.
We tell the stories of our history and we should. We should tell of mighty battles, fought and won. But we should also tell of the mothers and fathers who come from lands different than ours whose sons and daughters do not return home.
We should tell of the conviction of those who fought upon the soil of our own country to preserve a way of life that was cherished but which flourished by the sweat and toil of people who had been kidnapped from their own land and taken into slavery. And if we must erect statues and memorials to honor that conviction, they should be placed alongside memorials to those who were kept in chains and were treated less than human in order to maintain that way of life.
We should tell of expansion into the wilderness and the coming of technology to the frontier. But we should also tell of the people who first lived upon the land and drew life from it, who considered it sacred whose livelihood and heritage were lost in the waves of encroaching civilization.
We should tell of the wonders of massive machinery which, for reasons that I cannot fully comprehend can take flight and travel hundreds of miles. We should tell of the forces of evil that were overcome and the lives that probably were saved in the long run. But we should also tell of the fear and fright of those whose lives ended with the explosions that fell from the sky.
And, if at all possible, we should stand next to someone who sees history through different eyes and work at telling the whole history.
I think we can learn something from those old Jewish scholars from days of old—the ones that thought it would be helpful to add some commentary to the sacred texts, so that we could hear the history more fully. I think, in their wisdom, they remind us how important it is to remember the important events in our history. But I also think they remind us how important it is to reflect on the fullness of the history—the history that is usually told, as well as the history that is forgotten to time. But I think most importantly, they remind us that just because it happened once in history, we do not need to repeat it.
It’s one of the great divine characteristics that God has placed within us – a memory, no so much that we won’t forget, but that we won’t always have to repeat.
The God we come to worship this day, the God who has been revealed to us through Jesus of Nazareth is indeed the still speaking God who continues to help us work things out in new ways. Thanks be to God.