The Beginning of Months
| Exodus 12:1-14
||Sun, September 8, 2002
Rev. Ed Searcy
|“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’.” Passover. The seminal moment when Israel’s calenadar begins. The text says that this is the beginning of marking time for the people chosen to keep alive the memory of God’s mighty acts and daring promises for the world. But there I was on Friday, at the UBC Main Event, standing next to the Hillel House table, toasting my Jewish friends a happy new year on Rosh Hashanah. How can springtime Passover be new year if Rosh Hashanah in September is also new year’s day? Rabbi Martin, in New York, emails the answer: it turns out that the Jewish calendar has four new year’s days. It sounds so confusing. Until Martin reminds that we are used to a multiplicity of ways to mark new years: a calendar year, a tax year, a school year and a national birthday. So, the Jewish year begins now, at Rosh Hashanah ... but the months begin again at Passover, “the beginning of months.” It is a crucial point. Passover is the birth of Israel from slavery. It is the moment when the power of Yahweh to bless and use a powerless people becomes evident. This is the moment of inversion, the instant when the pressed down are liberated from their oppressors. Pharaoh’s massive military and economic power is shown for the empty shell of powerlessness that it is. Passover is the beginning of the months of life after liberation.
But why should we pay any attention? We aren’t Jews. Passover is not marked on our Christian Seasons Calendar. Our new year begins on Advent. There are surely more pressing matters at hand. Memories are fresh on this first anniversary of the beginning of terror newly close at hand. The planet strains under the pressures of the relentless demands of humankind. And we come here burdened with hidden grief or guilt, anxiety or anguish. We hope for some new word, some sweet spiritual truth. Instead, we hear detailed instructions about how to celebrate the passover: one lamb per household, each one slaughtered at twilight, its blood on the doorposts of the house, its body roasted and eaten overnight, with all the household dressed to travel, the bread eaten unleavened because there is no time for it to rise. This ancient Jewish memory hardly seems central to our life, here and now. Except for that nagging memory of the beginning of our life together ... a beginning rooted in the celebration of Passover. Remember? Jesus’ last week spent in the midst of the annual Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem. His death marked in a meal of bread broken and blood spilled. And then all those words in scripture naming Jesus the lamb of God. From the beginning the church has called him the “paschal lamb”. Jesus is passover lamb for a community of Jews and Greeks and Egyptians, Caucasians and Asians and more who, in him, are adopted into the family that begins with Moses and Aaron and the passover that begins the counting of months. Do you see? This text of inversion, this story of the power of Yahweh to overcome oppression, is our story. We have imagined that our life as a congregation began with that first meeting of University Hill United Church in January 1928. Now we remember that our life together began with the beginning of months and the blood of lambs.
Now, to be fair, this is the deep shared memory we seek to rekindle whenever we worship. We live in the midst of cultures of entertainment and commerce that foster amnesia. Amnesia is necessary if we are to be led to believe that we are primarily shoppers and consumers, that our identity essentially depends on what we have ... and don’t have. If we forget the foundational event that forms us we begin to believe that when we have given up hope that there really is no hope. In forgetting our origins we forget that despair does not have the final word when the Deliverer of Israel, the liberator of the enslaved, is in the neighbourhood. So our worship is not primarily educational or motivational. It is not mainly about how to live upright lives or be better people. Our worship is, at its heart, the enacting of a living memory in order to overcome chronic amnesia. This is the reason that the text is concerned that worshippers get Passover right. The twelfth chapter of Exodus is a description of the events of the first Passover. Yet it lingers on the details of the ritual observance of the Passover meal in the centuries to follow. The text reminds that each household must be included - it is essential that no one goes without. The Passover litrugy is not only for the privileged few but for all of those who seek to be among those freed from the enslaving ways of Egypt. This freedom, this new life, comes at a cost. The blood of lambs, sign of life and of death, becomes the sign of safety and freedom. In re-enacting the ancient meal each year at the Passover the Jewish descendants of Moses and Aaron learn to say “we were slaves in Egypt, not “our ancestors were once slaves in Egypt.” In regularly re-enacting the Passover meal of Jesus at table before his death we learn that he eats that same meal here and now, at this table, with us. Each time we gather we begin again, at the Passover of the LORD, entering the drama of freedom.
The drama of freedom. That is the heart of the story. We like the sound of freedom, but we aren’t so sure about the details. Liberation from oppression sounds wonderful. But the death of all newborn Egyptian children and livestock rightly troubles us. This liberation comes with violence, with a struggle, with death. There is a real contest. Truth is at stake. The Empire intends to coerce and control the same people who Yahweh calls out to live a new way of life as God’s people. We want to imagine that it can be otherwise, that with patience and mediation Pharaoh can be convinced to let the Israelites go free. You know how it is. We pretend that our stubborn addictions and habitual compulsions can be wished away, that we can simply ask them to let us go free. We assume that our instinctive reliance upon revenge and our desperate fear of truth-telling in the face of power can be overcome without pain. But the text reminds us that Pharaoh has endured a host of plagues without letting the people go. Pharaoh has sancitoned the murder of all Hebrew newborn boys not once, but twice. There is no hope that this tiny, defenceless group of nobodies - these nameless slaves who are not yet a people - will ever be set free. Yet, in the darkness of a single night, the power that holds them captive is broken. The shadow of death darkens the land. Out of death a people is born.
Hear the echoes of our story in this ancient story. A tiny people who are not yet a people, held captive by forces that will not let them go. A people who long to live free of the deathly ways of the Empire, freed from enslavement to the powers that dictate their every day. A people who dream of freedom from the all-consuming routines of technology in order to foster the life-giving habits of the kingdom of God. A people who dream of freedom to serve the God of steadfast love, not the gods of image, status and power. A people who dream of freedom from despair and worthlessness, of freedom to live in hope, beloved by God. This little people who hear the call of God to leave Egypt and to journey to the Promised Land ... this people is the church. Yet the liberated church still struggles to escape the forces that enslave. We do not easily become freed to live the new life of God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. Liberation from the powers that hold us does not come without struggle.
This is what beings us to we worship at the foot of the cross. This is the place where the hopes for freedom die and are born again. This is the sign that reminds us of the tragic end of our hopes and, then when all is lost, of our liberation from despair. When we gather under the cross our amnesia evaporates. Here we remember who we are. We are the people who have heard in Jesus the call of God to live a new life. He has invited us to turn away from the Empire’s ways and to turn towards the ways of God’s kingdom come. More than that, he has invited us to become one with him in his dying and rising. The crucified Passover lamb of God calls us to enter into his sacrifice by dying to who we have been so that we can be raised with him, newly born. It is true that our Christian Seasons begin with Advent’s preparations for the birth of the one who saves us from slavery. Yet our months surely begin with Passover Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Our life begins here, with Jesus - the sacrificial lamb - who haunts the Empire in liberating its slaves.
Our life begins in this Easter liberation. Despair lets us go. We are on the run from Egypt, on the run from enslavements to deathly habits. We are on the run from the security of systems and structures that once kept us all in their place. We are running into vulnerability, into danger, into adventure. Passover and Easter are festivals of departure. They mark the origin of a people on the move. We are on the move to living freely in obedience to the life-giving ways of God. We are escaping the Empire’s ways of acquisition and domination. This wilderness journey to God’s promised future is no easy road. But it is the road that is opened to us by the crucified lamb whose life-giving blood is the sign and seal of the costly love of God for all who dare to leave the Empire behind. Even you. Even me.