I can re-member the chaos of the first Passover.
Neighbors rushing to stores to purchase meat. My solitary stillness after making up an excuse to avoid accepting an invitation.
Later watching as friends smear blood over front doors. My pretentious distaste for their new decor kept to myself.
I can imagine saying nothing about everything happening around me because anything happening would have had nothing to do with me.
Inspired by Exodus 12: 8-13 (NRSV)
When I was twelve, and my sister was six, my parents took us to see Radio Flyer in the theatre. I was twelve, so I don’t know what my parents thought that movie was going to be about, but I do know they didn’t know it was going to be about child abuse.
This week we finally push ahead in the Exodus narrative. We are getting somewhere, even if it turns out we are ill-prepared for the horrors that unfold.
It is an abrupt transition for Saturday mornings at The Land. In Genesis, our sermon series held a sense of awe for God’s creative, collaborative birthing of the beauty of Creation. In Exodus, our sermon series has a sense of wonder for God’s creative, collaborative torturing of an entire people.
To recap what has happened between last week’s scripture and this week’s scripture: a stick becomes a snake, water becomes blood, the Nile River fills with frogs, dust changes to gnats and flies swarm houses, disease wipes out farm animals, boils and sores break out on the skin of humans and animals, and a terrible hailstorm wipes out all the crops.
Every time the Pharaoh denies the Hebrews their freedom, Yahweh punishes the Egyptian people. And, while the Pharaoh lives in denial of the tragedies unfolding, the Egyptian people are responsive.
In Exodus 9:19, God sends a warning to the Egyptian’s saying, “bring your livestock and everything you have in the field to a place of shelter, because the hail will fall on every person and animal that has not been brought in and is still out in the field, and they will die.” In the next verse, we read that “officials of Pharaoh who feared the word of the Lord hurried to bring their slaves and their livestock inside.”
Before the initiation of any action, God offers an option to all people that would prevent harm. The inclusivity of fair warnings supports the theory introduced last week; that Exodus is a corporate collaboration with a vision of mutual liberation. In the episode above, the Hebrew people are saved by the response of the Egyptians who take God’s warning seriously and respond accordingly. This interconnectedness of fate provides an in-depth understanding of why Exodus engaged both Israel and Pharaoh.
True freedom is possible only in a systemic reordering that equalized the value of all people present in the community. As Resmaa Menakem explains in his book, My Grandmother’s Hands, “Healing does not occur in a vacuum. We also need to begin mending our collective body. This mending,” Manekem says, “takes place in connections with other bodies- in groups, neighborhoods, and communities.”
God’s concern for the salvation of the system is equivalent to God’s work to liberate the people whom He created and continues to call Her own. God’s confrontation with systems of brutality and genocide manifests fully in this morning’s scripture, which describes the first Passover.
Just as Exodus is about more than escape, Passover is about more than a specific group of people. Passover is an opportunity for people to choose once again to wake up and respond or to deny and ignore. Passover is a divine assault on the system and a call for all people to join in the work of God’s undoing of injustice.
I make this argument based on the previous patterns of inclusivity in Exodus. If God tells all the people how to avoid the death of a hailstorm, why would God select only a few to spare in the very next saga? God was choosing to warn all the people, but only certain people were choosing to respond to God.
We hear Yahweh’s warning, “For 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. The 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.”
Now, given the action God has taken so far in the Bible, I am confident that knowing where people live is not a divine limitation. God did not create the entire cosmos, know the pains of the people, and hear their cries for help, only to be unable to remember where Karen lives. God is neither directionally challenged, nor is God suffering from dementia. God is warning the people about what is going to happen and giving specific instructions for their response. God requires the collaboration and involvement of the people in work for systemic liberation.
The instruction to eat unleavened bread in a hurry and to mark their houses for safety signals an urgent departure from a system of death and destruction. God shakes a people held captive in an exhaustive system. God wakes people from their apathy to their participation in an empire antithetical to the presence and promise of God.
And, God proves extreme in crafting wake-up calls. God incites a reality plagued with the crushing consequences of denial. Over and over, we witness an unwillingness to take seriously, and respond accordingly, to the warnings Yahweh provides.
Imagine an Empire where everyone is comfortable while being blasted with tragedies triggering death and despair. A virus, killing hundreds of thousands of people. Tornados, hurricanes, fires, and floods are destroying entire cities. Children can’t go to school. People who are sick are unable to get medications. And, still, after warning the people of an un-survivable hurricane, some choose to stay in their houses. And, yet, after explaining how to avoid a deadly virus, some people refuse to cover their noses and mouths with a cloth.
Imagine an Empire given such grace, and still, they are more vocal in their response of the plagues than to the brutality the plagues are responding too.
“Sure, the Hebrew people are enslaved and murdered, but did they really need to send the locusts and kill our livestock?”
Despite this incomprehensible marriage of available information and willful ignorance, God seeks reconciliation and redemption for those who stay behind.
God sees not an angry resister, but a frightened woman with no resources to move the twelve people in her household; one who is a child with cancer and another who is an elderly grandmother.
God knows not a man without compassion but a man who is a victim of programming, reporting that the virus is a hoax.
God knows not a police officer filled with hate, but a human being so fear-filled they are unable to remain rational enough to respond without taking an innocent life.
Exodus is the launch of an emergency evacuation, and still, God has faith that our levels of urgency for salvation will one day both be the same. God understands that while the Hebrew people must overcome their fear of the system, the Egyptian people must overcome their ignorance and denial of the pain and anxiety they have caused the Hebrew people. The Egyptian’s must willingly choose to experience a pain they could easily never know; the pain of a people from which the Egyptian’s have greatly profited.
For the oppressed and the oppressor, God has an evacuation plan.
God holds accountable the stubbornness of a system while simultaneously shepherding anyone who will listen to a shelter under which they can map a pathway to communal salvation.
A communal salvation we struggle to embody and embrace today.
Passover is not a one-time event. It is a ritual that exists as a concrete, specific event and transforms into a routine liturgical practice inspiring the community to continue the work for freedom in systems of oppression. As the commentator for today’s passage explains;
“The festival of unleavened bread is a dramatic affirmation that freedom is given only at the last moment, only at great risk, only by the skin of our teeth and only by the midnight urgency of Yahweh. An alternative future is never given or received casually. The festival invites reflection upon the urgency of faith, and how late freedom is characteristically given in a world set against liberation.”
Passover recalls a gift received by Yahweh, precisely at midnight, when nothing seems possible. And, right now, there is so much that feels impossible.
The faith we must hold onto is that the gift we receive from God will be the same as given to the people of the Exodus movement, the gift of participating in the work of liberation.
Accepting such a gift requires a belief that change and transformation are possible. It requires remembering that our salvation is not just about us heeding God’s warnings, but about never leaving behind those who don’t.
We are God’s first responders in an evacuation plan from injustice, and we must never cease to believe that the work we do, the time during which we wait is nothing less than revolutionary.