Broad Brook Congregational Church
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 7, 2014
Our story from Exodus this morning is the narrative that precedes the actual event for which the book is named. I guess I remember hearing it as a child in Sunday school but it was in seeing it on the big cinema screen that really made a lasting impression on me as a young person. I am speaking of the movie the Ten Commandments.
I remember the scene where the Angel of Death passes over the homes whose doors are signed with blood. I also remember feeling confused just like I did when Moses was put in the basket and set in the river Nile. Here, however there was more confusion. I was happy that the Israelites were to be freed but the cries of the parents of the Egyptian first-born was unsettling. I came to understand that the more important part of the story was the freedom gained by the Israelites and so I pushed the Egyptians to the back of my memory. I was selectively remembering. Or was it just that my remembering had been influenced by the innocence of childhood.
Reading this passage years later as a young adult and mother raised lots of different emotions. One thought that I struggled with was why should we remember a story of such horror and heartbreak. It has taken me a long time to come to a celebratory mood in regards to this particular part of the narrative. I wonder if there are some of you who still struggle with the portrait of the deity that was made more destructive by the movie than even the biblical portrayal did. Are some of you still harboring memories from your childhood experiences with this narrative?
We may not be able to resolve all the discomfort arising from the exodus story but I believe there are a great many seeds of good news that can be nurtured into a blooming bouquet of reasons to understand why this remembering of the passing over the homes of the Israelites was important to them, their descendants, and for us today.
Our narrative this morning places Israel at a crossroads. The Exodus will become the defining event in the life of God’s chosen people. Moses has been speaking from a position of weakness to the powerful Pharaoh who holds God’s people under oppressive conditions. This is certainly an example of “speaking the truth to power.” Pharaoh has refused to let the people go during each confrontation. This drama is interrupted while God gives instructions to Moses that he is to pass on to the people. “This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you.” In other words this is something new God is about to do. The instructions continue telling how to prepare the meal, where to place the blood marking, and how to worship from this time forward. This would become a worship ritual for remembering what God did for the people on that awful night, how God protected them, and how that night they became God’s “first-born child.”
There has been a change as a result of that terrible night. Time had changed and so had the identity of the people. This was a new beginning for the Israelites. The present time had been unbearable; the future was full of hope. God’s redemption had been experienced and would be remembered and celebrated annually. The descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are now more than a family—they are a congregation. God’s redemption and God’s protective care—a past remembered and a future open to new possibilities—hope for the future in God’s care and protection. These are reasons to celebrate.
What about our troubling question of God as “bringer of death?” There is no completely satisfactory answer to this question. Context can help somewhat. This event took place in a time and place that held a far different worldview than we do today. James Newsome argues that divine activity was understood more in warlike terms. He writes, ”If Israel conceptualized evil not in abstract but in personal terms, the only way God could be understood to be combating evil was if God brought judgment on evil persons or, as in this case, persons who were members of evil societies (Texts for Preaching Year A).Thus Newsome advises us to see such a brutal portrayal of God as “partial and distorted.” Thus, he argues, that we ought to deny the portrait of God as the bringer of death. We can look to other portraits of God by biblical witnesses. Isaiah 42:6-7, continues Newsome, saw Israel’s “redemption not in terms of destruction of Israel’s captors, but in terms of the captor’s enlightenment into the ways of Yahweh. The prophet Jonah reluctantly bore witness to the God who loves all people passionately, even those oppressors who have earned the wrath of the oppressed. Jesus demonstrated the love of God even for those who crucified him.”
But we have the story as it is. We tell it and remember it. Where can we find ourselves in this story? Walter Brueggemann writes a compelling commentary. We see ourselves as “abidingly cared for in a world that is under profound threat.” Brueggemann sees Pharaoh in every agent of oppression and abuse (including one’s own socioeconomic system), and advises us to adopt “an important restlessness” (Exodus, the New Interpreter’s Bible).
Kaj Munk, Danish pastor killed by the Gestapo in 1944 (in The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne). “What is therefore, our task today? Shall I answer: ‘Faith, hope and love’? That sounds beautiful. But I would say–courage. No—even that is not challenging enough to be the whole truth. Our task today is recklessness. For what we Christians lack is not psychology or literature….we lack a holy rage—the recklessness which comes from the knowledge of God and humanity. The ability to rage when justice lies prostrate on the streets, and when the lie rages across the face of the earth….a holy anger about the things that are wrong in the world. To rage against the ravaging of God’s earth, and the destruction of God’s world. To rage when little children must die of hunger when the tables of the rich are sagging with food. To rage at the lie that calls the threat of death and the strategy of destruction peace. To rage against complacency. To restlessly seek to change human history until it conforms to the norms of the Kingdom of God.”
That is what I think of when Brueggemann talks about an important restlessness. Even though Munk wrote this seventy years ago it reads like it was just yesterday.
And so we spend time in worship of God remembering who God has been, who God is, who we are as a result of who God is and what God has and is doing for us. “Because this is not just a story from ages past, the remembering and the worship, and the sense of God’s protection are living, vibrant, renewing and restoring, yet impelling us toward God’s future. Again, Brueggemann: ‘The practitioners of these festivals and the tellers of these tales are indeed sojourners dreaming of a better land, filled with God’s abundance. The engaged memory of pain evokes hope for a transformed world. The children of this community cannot afford to be protected from either the pain or the hope’”(Kathy Huey, Sermon Seeds).
So we remember! God loves all creation. God shelters under God’s protective care. But like the Israelites we forget. It is important therefore that we be about remembering who God was and is, and whose we are and to adopt a n important restlessness.