James Ishmael Ford
13 April 2014
First Unitarian Church
Providence, Rhode Island
They thought they were safe
that spring night; when they daubed
the doorways with sacrificial blood.
To be sure, the angel of death
passed them over, but for what?
Forty years in the desert
without a home, without a bed,
following new laws to an unknown land.
Easier to have died in Egypt or stayed there a slave, pretending
there was safety in the old familiar.
But the promise, from those first
naked days outside the garden,
is that there is no safety,
only the terrible blessing
of the journey. You were born
through a doorway marked in blood.
We are, all of us, passed over,
Brushed in the night by terrible wings.
Ask that fierce presence,
whose imagination you hold.
God did not promise that we shall live,
but that we might, at last, glimpse the stars,
brilliant in the desert sky.
Following services at the First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Way Back in the Corner of a Certain New England State, the parents were in the front and the kids in the back seats of their pale green Prius, all, need I add, appropriately belted. The family was on its way to see relatives in Providence for dinner.
Once they were well on their way, Sally turned and asked their eldest what she learned in Religious Education that day? Jessica replied, “We learned about Passover. It was amazing. Moses was this big guy, played football in college. Well, he tackled the Pharaoh and knocked him down. While the Pharaoh was getting up, Moses quickly gathered the Israelites together and they all ran toward the river. As soon as they got there Moses had his Corps of Engineers throw up a pontoon bridge. Then when they got across and while the Egyptians were on the bridge, Moses called in air support and they blew the whole thing up.”
There was a bit of silence in the car as they continued on their way. Finally Sally asked in a hoarse whisper, “That’s what your Sunday school teachers taught?”
“Not really,” replied the girl. “But if I told you the story the way they did, you’d never believe it.”
I understand that. Perhaps the story doesn’t quite hang together for you as history, either. And, you know, it doesn’t really work for those who professionally study ancient Near Eastern religions, either, at least not among those with no dog in the hunt. Now this is not likely to be news to you, among other things it has been mentioned from this pulpit before. The mainstream of the scholarly community is confident that there was in fact no Egyptian captivity, no Moses, no forty years wandering, and no military assault on the shores of the Dead Sea. It was all made up.
A rather more likely story is that there was among other peoples living in that area we now call Israel and Palestine, a rag tag band of refugees from various conflicts and abuses who cobbled together a community up in the hill country. A small kingdom grew there, not really a lot different than any of the others in that area. Until, that is, the Babylonian armies marched through in the year 605 before our common era. As often happened in those days, the conquerors took the cream of the local crop, the artisans, the poets, the intellectuals, and carried them captive to Babylon.
It was there, in the Babylonian captivity that these exiles began to weave together the stories we now know as the Exodus, working out the harsh reality of captivity, and a dream of escape. Actually, truth be told, I love the Exodus story even more for it not being so much a history lesson as an articulation of the aspiration, the dream of a crushed and dominated people seeking an identity, and then in that creating out of their own human imaginations and hearts something quite wonderful. This dream nation, this dream of healing and home is something I can identify with. As in fact have many, so many over the years. It has sustained slaves in many cultures. It has sustained the oppressed everywhere. It has been the dream of broken hearts for two and a half millennia, and continues to be so.
This is the project of religion. We ask about meaning and direction, we wonder about what is holy and how to make lives worth living in hard times. And, here’s a small secret. It’s always hard times. We are all of us in captivity. We are, also, most all of us, also Pharaoh, but I’ll save that investigation for another day.
Here’s the important story, the part that resonates across cultures and time. We are called from Egypt, which in Hebrew is Mitzrayim, the narrow or constricted place, to freedom, to the great boundless, not in some fabled past, but here and today. Cut to the chase and Passover is about the spiritual quest. Yours. Mine. Ours.
I was raised Baptist, so the celebration of Passover, the Seder feast was introduced to me as an adult, and as a stranger in a strange land, I was gifted with being able to see some aspects of it that might be useful to all of us, whether we’re Jewish or not. Don’t forget, it is in fact a universal story, a universal path that we’re describing.And as something universal, it is intriguing to notice how the Seder ritual at the heart of the Passover observance appears to be modeled on the ancient Greek Symposium. The Symposium is a structured conversation, sometimes little more than a drinking party, but at its best, and usually it is, it is an opportunity for a deep and structured conversation about things that matter most. Think of Plato’s dialogue of the same name. (It’s occurred to me there are deep similarities between the Symposium as a spiritual discourse, the Seder as a spiritual discourse and our own chalice circle program. But, like looking at how we might be Pharaoh, something to save for another time.)
Within this structured conversation, the Seder celebration of Passover, there are four steps. By following these steps we are invited into our own investigation of bondage and freedom. So, in our limited time here, let’s take just a brief glance at how they arise and how we might take that walk ourselves.
First, a dedication. This is where we set an intention. It occurs when we notice what’s going on, how we have been in bondage. To what specifically, well, each of us follows our own path. Alcohol? Sex? Work? An all consuming view of the world that doesn’t in fact seem to be true? What has enthralled us and kept us from whole lives? Our intention is to move beyond our narrowness, our obsessions, our addictions, what I think of as our ego-driven desire-oriented lives, toward holiness, toward the whole, toward expansion and generosity, curiosity and engagement.
The second thing in the Seder is a ritual washing. Here our intention is given its first concrete expression. We wash, we clean up, we tidy up the messes we’ve made out of that sense of narrowness, of separation, of constriction. It’s easy to see how this should be so. When you want to cook, the first thing to do is to clean up. In AA, one of our more interesting contemporary spiritual communities, one of the first steps is to atone for the wrong’s one has committed.
Third, we take nourishment, but of the humblest sort, just something to drink, some vegetables and a little quick bread. Here our profoundest needs are represented in hunger. We all must eat. And we should never forget our bodies, our selves, our relationships with others. In this Passover ritual the satisfaction of our hunger is found easily, in the simplest thing, hunger and nourishment.
Fourth, and last, is a breaking with the things that bind us. Often this is the hardest thing to accept when we embark on a spiritual journey. We tend to want it easy. We tend not to want to hurt. But breaking can be hard. In the Seder ritual this breaking is of the matzoth, the bread. In reality, however, it’s about our own breaking, the need for us to surrender being right or, for some of us, of being wrong. We need to not believe everything we think. We need to open ourselves to curiosity, to engagement, to not turning away. We need to let go, we need to allow the world in all its terribly glory to do what it must with us.
Within this last part there is the sharing of stories. I really believe we are the symbol-bearing animal. Our minds, our worlds, our hopes all are woven out of stories. There are many good and true stories, that of Jesus, that of the Buddha, to name just two. And here we have the story of Exodus, a truest of true stories. Here we’re given the big picture, the long view, the wide perspective of genuine wisdom.
At Passover, out of this telling of stories, come the questions. In the Seder all our questions are reduced to four. If you’re interested and don’t know what the specific questions are, I suggest later you google “four” “questions” and “Seder.” You’ll learn some interesting things. But broadly the questions mark out the Passover event. And it turns out they’re less questions than a single woven together statement in its own four parts. Our lives are a rush to get away from something and toward something; slavery of any sort is as bitter as bitter can be; but we’re moving from that bitter to the sweet; and thanks to our taking this journey, this sacred journey, today, today we can live in freedom.
People have been telling this story for generations. And there’s another wrinkle that happens because of that. I have a number of friends who observe the Seder every year. Among my closest friends are some who, because of a death in the family this year, are finding how the parts change, and now some have to move into places within that celebration, that they thought were reserved for their elders. But they have now become the elders. This stepping up and taking our place in our time, as it has been for the many generations, is something daunting, and powerful, and no doubt woven into the fabric of all ancient celebrations, particularly those that center on family.
So, for us, today, here, a simple message: We are all of us caught up, bound by things, circumstances, often of our own creation. But we don’t have to be. If we notice, we can set a goal of moving away, and then, do it. Taking a chance, breaking old patterns, living into new lives.
And there’s something of a cycle here. There are always aspects of our lives that bind us, and so we get to do it again.
And each time our place is a little different.
Each time we can be a little closer to that dream Jerusalem, that gate to paradise.
And this year.
With each breath.
If, that is, we open our hearts, and are ready to step forward.