A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church
October 2, 2016
Exodus 12:1-13 and 13:1-9
In last week’s episode, 400 years ago, the Book of Genesis ended with the struggles of the family of Jacob being wrapped up with a neat bow. And the Israelites thrived in Egypt. They followed God’s Promise to be fruitful and multiply. Then a Pharaoh arrived who had not known Joseph. And who was not a fan of all those Hebrew refugees with their fruitfulness and multiplying.
So Pharaoh enslaved the Israelites, who continued to be fruitful and multiply, despite the hard labor. Pharaoh was so caught up in scarcity and worry, he was so quick to categorize them as “other”, that he decided killing Hebrew babies was a good policy. Pharaoh was unable to see how God’s blessing to the Hebrew people might also be a blessing for him and his people. Pharaoh was unable to see how we are connected, one to another.
God heard the cries of God’s people and raised up a leader to deliver them from bondage. This leader was an adopted son of the Pharaoh, a murderer on the run named Moses who was tending the flocks of his father in law when God called him to save his people.
The story of the deliverance of the Hebrew people out of slavery and toward the Promised Land is one we usually hear during Holy Week, before Easter, as we remember one deliverance to prepare for the deliverance of Easter.
What the people are instructed to remember is not an easy story. There is death, and there is no celebration in death. And there is also deliverance from slavery, subjugation, and exile. In the Passover, we remember being the beneficiaries of grace, of death passing by our door because of the heart of God.
The people are instructed to remember. They are told never to forget a tragic time, even as we could see why they might not want to remember it.
Remembering the story of slavery is an antidote to nostalgia. If you truly remember what you experienced while living in slavery in Egypt, it won’t be as easy for you to refer to the past as the ‘good ol’ days’. Later in the story of Israel, when people are wandering in the wilderness, you’ll hear them forget their story. You’ll hear the nostalgia creep in, when they ask Moses just to let them go back to Egypt, where they at least had food and a roof over their heads. We have to remember so we don’t forget.
Remembering the story of slavery is also an antidote to cruelty.† When you remember the story and tell your children ‘we were once slaves in Egypt and it was horrible and God delivered us’, you hopefully will be kinder and more compassionate to the people you encounter who are enslaved or in bondage of some kind. When we forget who we are and whose we are—when we forget we came out of slavery—we turn a blind eye to the ways people are enslaved, either literally or figuratively.
Our nation is still dealing with the wounds of actual slavery. We tried to forget it, to just move on and recover from the devastation of the Civil War, to build a new country out of the battlefields and scarred landscape of the nation. 150 years later, the pain of our brothers and sisters who are facing racism, systemic injustice, and danger are cries for us to remember that we were once slaves in Egypt.
Those of us with the privilege to be blind to the systems that continue to enslave people have to remember. Forgetting isn’t working for us. It just sends us into denial while people are dying on the streets.
Remembering is also a subversive act, because the dominant culture of Pharaoh tried to tell the Hebrew people to forget the Promise. The Promise that their descendants would be more numerous than the stars. The instruction to be fruitful and multiply was a part of God’s Promise to the Hebrew people. And it wasn’t seen as Promise by Pharaoh. It was a cause for enslavement and struggle.
In the story of Exodus, we see how the abundance of God and the Promise of “enough” is in conflict with the scarcity of Pharaoh, and the worries of “not enough”. And God’s subversive economy of abundance is such a threat to the dominant culture that Pharaoh killed Hebrew babies. If we don’t remember the Promise, we start believing another story—one opposed to the Promise, with slavery, where killing Hebrew babies seems like a good idea.
I’ve not been in slavery. But I know what it is to be delivered.
During a difficult year in college, I was afraid the church would judge me for what I saw as my sin. Instead, I was shown grace and compassion. And I remember it.
And I tell that story to myself and to others. If you’ve been here a while, you’ve heard it from me more than once. I tried to back out of joining the church because of what I was going through at the time and told the pastor it just wasn’t a good time for me. When I told him my story, he said, “when could you possibly need a church family more than you do right now?”
I remember that moment. Not because I want to go back and live through a time of difficulty and pain again, but because it was in that time of difficulty and pain that I finally knew deliverance and began to understand the delivery of Exodus. It was in that deliverance that I learned of grace and salvation in tangible ways.
I remember that time because it reminds me that when people are in difficult situations, they don’t need judgment, mine or anyone else’s. Judgment is something we do very well for ourselves without any prompting. The wonderful people at that church taught me the church’s job in such moments is to remind people of grace, and to help them get through the difficult time so they can find redemption on the other side of it.
We are thousands of years removed from the story of the Exodus from Egypt. It happened around the world, about as far away from her as we can imagine. And yet. We remember. We claim this story of our ancestors in faith as our own.
We remember it so we can connect it to our own lives and notice the deliverance we experience too.
Remembering is not only looking backwards at past events, unchanged by time. Remembering is an action of seeing the present moment through a time from the past and is always an act of interpretation. There are no objective memories, even if they call to mind actual events.
Justin and I are headed to our 25th college reunion this coming weekend. And what we remember of those days will be seen through the particular moment our lives are in right now. Having a kid in college and another on the way soon will color the way we “remember” the good ol’ days of our college years. Our memories will be shared with the memories of our classmates, and we’ll experience our past in a new way as we remember together.
Remembering also draws us into God’s mystery.
The other times the church speaks ritually about remembering is during our two sacraments. Baptism and Communion. The word “sacrament” is the Latin translation of the Greek Word “mysterion”, from which we get our word “mystery”. Mysterion refers to God’s direct action in space and time, which is baffling to human experience and understanding.
Augustine, a 5th century church father from Northern Africa, described sacraments well when he called them, “visible signs of an invisible grace.” So, when you see a baptism or take communion, you might consider how the things you see, touch, and experience in those sacraments stand in for greater mysteries that are not visible. Love. Grace. Redemption. Adoption. Inclusion. Mercy. What do the acts of baptism and communion make you remember?
It is said that Martin Luther found great comfort in remembering his baptism. In times of despair, he would tell himself, “I am baptized.” This act of remembering your baptism can be powerful if it connects you back to the faithfulness and grace of God. Remembering your baptism doesn’t necessarily mean remembering the moment you were baptized. Many of us were baptized as infants and cannot call to mind that day.
Likewise, at the Last Supper, Jesus tells his disciples, “do this in remembrance of me”. When we say those words during communion, we don’t just mean “remember that one time 2000 years ago when we had dinner with Jesus”. The word has a more active meaning, where remembering means making present through enactment. Remembrance is taking that event from the past and making it real again today in the present.
In the French Refomed Church, during an infant baptism, the Minister holds the child and speaks to the child. “For you, little one, Christ came. For you little one, Christ died. You know nothing of this, but we will continue to teach it to you until you confess it yourself”.
Today we have two acts of remembrance still to come in worship. We will be welcoming new members and that liturgy speaks to remembering and renewing our own baptismal vows. We will call to mind all of the promises made at baptism, so that they will become real for us. So that our children will grow up to confess it for themselves. So that the mystery of God’s interaction and deliverance in the world will be visible to us in ways we can touch, feel, and see.
At the Table, we will also remember. We will claim our seats at God’s Table—the table where nobody has too much and everyone has enough. We will remember what it is to be fed, and sustained, and equipped for the journey.
Remember this day on which you came out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, because the Lord brought you out from there by strength of hand.
Moses instructs the people to tell the story to their children, so they’ll remember too. And all these years later, we’re still at it. I invite you to spend some time with God’s story this week so you can remember you are God’s beloved children who have been delivered.
†The idea of “remembering as an antidote” is from a conversation on the Narrative Lectionary podcast.