SERMON: Remembering Our Liberation

We come together at the beginning of many holy seasons.
We celebrate the coming of Spring, stories of liberation, holy days in so many traditions.
We tell the stories and as we remember, we connect with the past.
We tell the stories, and as we remember, we find hope for the future.
We tell the stories, and as we remember, we discover our common humanity and the beauty of our community.
We tell the stories, and as we do, we begin to write the story of our future.

May it be a story of peace.
May it be a story of freedom.
May it be a story of love.

In Christian churches in the Western world, congregations are celebrating Palm Sunday, the day that recalls Jesus’ return to Jerusalem. According to the story, Jesus had spent much of the three years preceding this day preaching and teaching in the cities and towns outside Jerusalem, but on this day decided to return to the Holy City. As the story goes, he was met by crowds carrying branches, who shouted out, “Hosanna, Blessed is the one who comes in the name of God.”

In Christian terms, this is often called the “triumphal entry” of Jesus into Jerusalem, but was it just a show of Jesus’ popularity and fearlessness? Why did Jesus go to Jerusalem? After all, it was the most dangerous place he could go.  Jesus did not go to Jerusalem just to show his courage. Nor were the crowds there just to greet him. Jesus and the crowds of people were in the city to celebrate Pesach, or Passover. Pesach was one of the three traditional pilgrimage festivals, when the entire nation of Israel—or as many of them as possible—traveled to Jerusalem for the Pesach feast.

Jesus went to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover and to fulfill the commandment to remember and retell the story of the Hebrew people’s liberation from slavery in Egypt. We forget sometimes that Jesus was a devout Jew. We forget because centuries of anti-Semitism have affected the way the story is told, making Jesus’ Jewishness nearly invisible. But Jesus was a Jew and quite devout, even though he challenged the powerful Jews of his day. Every Jew is commanded to tell the Passover story, to keep it alive for their children and for the community. Jesus went to Jerusalem to do just that, to remember the beginning of the Jewish nation, when the Jews were no longer slaves to Pharaoh, but free to serve God instead.

The haggadah, or “telling” of the Passover story begins:

Remember this day, the day you went forth from Egypt, from the house of bondage, for with a mighty hand, the Eternal One led you forth to freedom.

The haggadah begins this way to remind each generation of Jews that the story does not belong only to the past. It is the story of the entire Jewish nation and of each and every Jew. It is to be told as one’s own story—the story of our own slavery and liberation; our own escape from the things that oppress and bind us. The Pesach story is history and remembrance, but it is also a parable—a story that reminds us and teaches us—about the challenge and necessity of being free.

The Pesach story is the first recorded history of slaves being freed and being led out of the land of their captivity on to a journey toward freedom. It is not an easy story. It is not a tidy story. But it is a very human story. God uses Moses to bring the Israelites out of Egypt and to end their slavery, but they do not know what freedom will bring. They only know that suddenly, without warning, their deepest longing has been made real and they must seize the opportunity and flee. It is a story of urgency, of daring, and of faith.

It is also a story of suffering, fear, and doubt. It is the story of ten brutal plagues that afflict not only the Pharaoh, but all the people of Egypt. It is a story that soberly reminds us of the cost of oppression and, at the same time, recognizes the value of freedom. It is a story of suffering and liberation, sorrow and celebration, woven together intimately and inseparably.

Take, for instance, the most recognizable part of the story, the miracle at the Red Sea. There are a number of versions of the story, but the main points are the same: Moses has secured the promise of the Pharaoh that he will let the Israelites go. As they begin to leave, the Pharaoh reneges. He sends his soldiers after the Israelites, to bring them back to Egypt and slavery. The Israelites run, but find themselves running toward the sea, with the soldiers on their heels. There is nowhere for them to go.

As the soldiers approach, the Israelites cry out to God and the sea itself opens up, allowing them to walk through on dry ground. As the soldiers begin to follow, the sea rushes in again and the soldiers are drowned. Then Moses sings a song of praise, and Aaron’s sister, Miriam, leads the women in a dance of celebration. Interestingly, the chapter doesn’t end there. Three days later, in the wilderness and thirsty, the Israelites begin to fuss and complain about the lack of water. Three days after a miraculous liberation from slavery, and the people are already dissatisfied and afraid.

I guess this is one of the things I like about the Passover story. I can relate to it. I can see myself in almost every part of the story. I can see the parts of myself that have been enslaved, the times when I have hardened my heart to the suffering of others, the times I have been liberated, the times I have gone back on my word, the times I have cried out in fear, and the times I have sung and danced and celebrated my liberation. And I can see in myself too, the times when I have forgotten so quickly all that has been done for me, and have begun to complain before I had any right to complain.

The tradition of telling this story each and every year has become precious to me because of this. Each time my family sits down for Pesach, we are reminded that not only our ancestors struggle with slavery and freedom, faith and fear, but we struggle ourselves. There is no easy way. Liberation is costly and painful and frightening and amazing. If we choose to truly be free from whatever enslaves us, we will face all the parts of the journey: the suffering, the crying out, the miracle, the celebration, and undoubtedly, the need to be reminded again and again of what we have done.

This is the beauty of Passover. By telling the story again and again, we are reminded of all that we are—the miraculous and good, the helpless and enslaved, the selfish and hard-hearted. We can see ourselves in the story and by seeing ourselves, can also begin to see others. This is the beginning of compassion, and perhaps the beginning of a larger story.

Desmond Tutu, inspired by the story of Passover, wrote:

Liberation is costly. Even after the Lord had delivered the Israelites from Egypt, they had to travel through the desert. They had to bear the responsibilities and difficulties of freedom. There was starvation and thirst and they kept complaining. They complained that the diet was monotonous. Many of them preferred the days of bondage and the fleshpots of Egypt. We must remember that liberation is costly. It needs unity. We must hold hands and refuse to be divided. We must be ready. Some of us will not see the day of our liberation physically, but those people will have contributed to the struggle. Let us be united, let us be filled with hope, let us be those who respect one another.

I like the thought that Jesus’ last supper was a Pesach meal. As the story was told, the songs sung, the cups of wine drunk, and his community gathered, I like to think of him remembering this story that reveals so much of human nature. I like to think of him feeling intimately connected to the story of the Jewish people—his people—and to the human story of suffering and liberation. I like to think that when he heard the story again, as he had each year of his life, he felt connected to the past, and perhaps to the future as well. I like to imagine, that like Desmond Tutu, the story inspired him to long for unity, for hope, for respect among all people. I like to imagine that night was different from all other nights, not because it foretold Jesus’ execution, but because it recalled such a powerful story of liberation.

In some of the tellings of the Pesach story, these words are read at the end:

Our story, we have said, begins with degradation and ends with glory. Pain, injustice, denial of love: since our beginning we have known many degradations. In every generation there are those who seek to destroy us…We shall remember, we shall not forget….Ignorance, prejudice, hatred; contempt for truth and justice; hunger and terror; fear; war—these remain to plague the human race. To end these plagues…that is the task of all who care. It is our task, for we are the people who know the stranger’s heart, the slave’s aching bones, the shaking hands of the exile.

The Passover seder with its retelling of such a powerful story, is not only a time to look back. It is a time to look forward to a world in which all plagues, all enslavement, all hard-heartedness, all hunger, and all disdain are eliminated. The Passover story, which is a human story, can inspire us to work for the liberation of all people, from all the suffering that holds them captive. The Passover story can be both reminder and inspiration that we can be led from bondage to freedom, from isolation to community, and from degradation to glory. May it be so.

Amen. Ashé. And Blessed be.

adapted from the Passover Haggadah

May the light of these stories
Inspire us to use our powers
To heal and not to harm,
To help and not to hinder,
To bless and not to curse,
To serve in the spirit of freedom.