Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Remember This Day -- World Communion Sunday

Exodus 12:1-13; 13:1-8
October 2, 2016

            “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
That is the question asked by the youngest child at a Seder meal. The Seder is a Jewish ceremonial meal celebrated on the first night of Passover.
            If you remember, we observed a Seder meal just a few years ago. I’ve participated in them several times in the last two decades, but I had no idea what they were about until I volunteered as a senior high youth advisor for my church in Richmond. The leaders of both the junior and senior high youth groups organized a Seder for both groups. Although I helped with different elements of the meal – I think I volunteered to bring Matzo, because that was about all I knew how to do – I had no clue what was happening. When it came time to celebrate the Seder, I sat down and looked at this plate set before me that was filled with a strange assortment of foods: parsley, small bowls of salt water, a roasted chicken bone, Matzo, an apple and nut concoction, an egg, horseradish, and a small glass of grape juice instead of wine. It was a youth gathering, after all.  
            The Associate Pastor of the church presided over the meal, and he did an excellent job of explaining the symbolism of the food on our plates. The salt water represented the tears of slavery. The bitter herb represented the bitterness of being enslaved. The Matzo was the unleavened bread the Jewish people ate hurriedly as they prepared to leave their bondage in Egypt. And so on. But it all began with that question, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
            We’ve reached the book of Exodus in our walk through the larger story of God’s promise and God’s people. The passage that we have today is somewhat of a break in the ongoing story. What we did not read this morning was the story of Moses. Last Sunday we heard excerpts from the story of Joseph. Joseph was well-loved and well-respected by the Pharaoh and the Egyptians. But Joseph and his brothers, and that “entire generation” eventually died. The Israelites took the Lord’s command to be fruitful and multiply to heart and did just that. But a new Pharaoh rose up to rule Egypt, and this Pharaoh did not know Joseph. He did not know Joseph’s work or contribution to the Egyptians. But he did know that there were many, many Hebrews and their numbers continued to grow. He was afraid of them. He was afraid that they might overpower the Egyptians. So he did what powerful and frightened rulers often do. He enslaved them.
            He oppressed them, and set harsh taskmasters over them. Yet the first chapter of Exodus tells us that the more oppressed they were, the more they multiplied. So the Pharaoh ordered that the Hebrew midwives, Puah and Shiphrah, kill the baby boys but let the baby girls live. The midwives were obedient to God, not Pharaoh, and they did not do what Pharaoh commanded. And so Moses was born. I’m going to assume that we know the basic story of Moses being put into a reed basket by his mother and then rescued and adopted by the daughter of Pharaoh. I’m also going to assume that we know the story of Moses growing up, killing an Egyptian taskmaster for beating a fellow Hebrew, and running away because of his crime. I’m guessing we know the story of Moses encountering God in the burning bush, and the plagues God sent upon the Egyptians so that the Pharaoh would finally let God’s people go.
            That brings us to our passage today. I said that this was a break in the narrative, in the story of Moses and Aaron leading the Hebrews out of Egypt. Perhaps it is not so much a break in the story, but it is a pause. In these verses, God instructed Moses and Aaron on the ritual meal they were to partake in preparation for the final plague. God told them that this day would be the first month of their year. From that point on, God said, on the tenth of that month the Israelites were to take a lamb for each family, for each household. If some families were too small for a lamb of their own, others were to share their lamb with them. Everyone was to receive a portion of that lamb. Everyone was to have enough. The blood of the lamb was to be put on the doorposts and on the lintel of every Hebrew household.
            God gave them specific details on the lamb’s appearance, and how it should be cooked, and what should happen to any leftovers. God specified the way they were to eat this meal: standing, clothed, with their sandals on and their staff in their hands. They were to eat the lamb and the unleavened bread and the bitter herb quickly. That night, the final plague of God would occur. God would pass over the land, striking down the firstborn of any household that did not have that lamb’s blood on the doorposts and lintels. God would pass over. And from that time on, God’s people were to mark that day, they were to remember that day when God passed over them so that they might be liberated and live.
            I struggle with this final plague. It was violent, and it was cruel. Those are two adjectives I don’t normally use to describe God. But it is hard for me to see it in any other light. Yet God’s passing over was to be remembered. It was to be the Passover, a remembrance of the day God delivered God’s people out of slavery. However violent that Passover was, it would shape the identity of the Israelites forevermore. They were the people who were delivered by God from slavery into freedom.
            Why is this night different from all other nights?
            As Christians we do not observe Passover as our Jewish brothers and sisters do, but our faith and our identity is inextricably bound to that identifying moment as well. Not only because we share the Torah, but because it was in the context of the Passover that Jesus marked the identity of his followers. The meal that we celebrate this morning shapes our identity as believers, just as the observance of Passover shapes the identity of the Jewish people.
            At the Passover meal, Jesus took bread and wine, common elements of any meal, and gave them new meaning. Every time the disciples shared in eating bread and drinking wine, they were to remember Jesus. They were to remember his life, his teachings, his command to love, and eventually they were to remember his sacrifice on the cross. That moment, that meal marked them. It shaped them. It gave them a new identity. Whenever they remembered that day, they remembered again Jesus and they remembered anew who they were because of him.
            Isn’t that what we do this morning as we gather around this table? Isn’t that what we do every time we eat this bread and drink this wine? We remember who Jesus was and is, and we remember who we are. Our communion of bread and wine is a sacrament. It is a sacred meal, a sacred ritual. But it is also an ongoing witness to our identity as followers of Christ. It shapes us and molds us and recreates us again and again.
            Christians around the world are partaking in this feast today. There may be differences in culture and custom, there may differences in the bread that is used and in the wine that is served. Yet we are bound together by something much bigger than what makes us different. When we break the bread and drink the cup, we remember who we are. We remember whose we are.
Why is this night different from all other nights?
 Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen. 

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