Barbara Blaisdell, Senior Pastor
First Christian Church – Tacoma, WA
July 19, 2015
(Exodus 12:1-14 NRSV) 1 The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: 2 This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. 3 Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. 4 If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. 5 Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year‑old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. 6 You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. 7 They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. 8 They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. 9 Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. 10 You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. 11 This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord. 12 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. 13 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. 14 This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.
The Greeneville, South Carolina television station reported that she was well-liked. Neighbors said that she was a very pleasant person. One neighbor was quoted as saying “I’m completely shocked.” This story is about a woman named Barbara Glenn, who was recently arrested in South Carolina thirty-five years after escaping from prison in Michigan where she had been convicted of assault and writing bad checks. But that was a life that none of her South Carolina neighbors knew; they knew her as a pleasant person who fit well into her affluent community, “a good neighbor and the last person you would imagine to be an escaped felon.” We heard an even more horrific example this very morning from the family of the young man who wrecked havoc and death in Chattanooga this week as the family said, “There are no words to describe our shock, horror, and grief. The person who committed this horrible crime was not the son we knew and loved.” It’s the sort of story that comes all the time, isn’t it? Stories about persons who seem to live very different, and even incompatible, lives. In fact, the way these stories are reported is predictable: the neighbors express shock at the other life that someone had led, and they talk about how nice, how pleasant, how decent he or she seemed.
One doesn’t have to search far through even the icons of American history to find this same phenomenon: one person, two seemingly very different lives. Thomas Jefferson, the man who would pen the words about all people being equal not only owned slaves but fathered children with one, and then used his own children as slaves. One person, two seemingly very different lives. Lyndon Johnson could courageously defy his upbringing and his friends to lead Congress to pass an historic voting rights act, a civil rights act and the legislation behind the war on poverty. But Johnson could also be vicious and mean to those who worked for him, taking delight in humiliating them. He used the most vile language for people of color. And he cheated on his loving and long-suffering wife. One person, two seemingly very different lives.
And yet, when we read such revelations, when we see someone whom we thought we knew have an entirely different side, and an entirely different life, as it were, we may be surprised, we may be saddened, we may even be aghast, but the very idea itself of such duality doesn’t shock us. For we know that these are simply extreme cases of what is within us all: One person, two seemingly very different lives. There are things in every one of our lives that would surprise others to find out. Every one of us has two lives, that others might be surprised to find out. Sometimes the less public of those lives, the ones that people would be surprised to discover, are benign and even fun:
One person, two seemingly very different lives.
The fact that we are so familiar with this phenomenon about life ought to help us understand our scripture reading for this morning. It is a deeply troubling one, if we really pay attention to the story. Oh, we preacherly types love to tell the part of the story of God sparing the children of Israel from harm and bringing them out of slavery and into freedom. But there is a darker side to this story, isn’t there? And we cannot simply dismiss it or avoid it or gloss on over it for two reasons: first, the story of the Passover and God’s intention that God’s people be liberated from anything that would hurt and enslave and mar their lives is the basis on which all of Judaism was built. Which, of course, is to say that it is also foundational to the Christian faith, for, after all, the last supper that Jesus celebrated with his disciples, what we remember and re-enact every first Sunday in Holy Communion, was in fact the Passover Meal that was instituted by this passage in Exodus. But second, this story goes to the heart of how it is that we need to read and interpret our Bibles and how we will make a terrible mistake if we wrongly interpret them.
Let’s start, then, with the first reason that this story is crucial. To do so, we need a bit of recap. Last week we left Moses there at the burning bush with God telling him that his purpose in life was not simply to be a contented shepherd in a land far from his people, but to lead his people out of the awful slavery in which they were enmeshed. But you may have noted that we skipped from chapter 3 which we read last week to chapter 12, which Esther read for us this morning. And what’s left out between last week’s reading and this week’s is Moses contending with Pharaoh and there being successive plagues on the Egyptians. The locusts and the boils and so forth. And now the story is moving to its conclusion and God tells the people that to honor and memorialize the liberation that they are about to receive, they are to prepare a special meal in a special way. The centerpiece of that meal is to be a lamb cooked in a certain way. Moreover, they are to be dressed in a certain way for this meal. They are to be in their traveling clothes, ready to go with God on a moment’s notice. And in contrast to Moses being instructed to take off his shoes in last week’s text. In this week’s text, Moses and the people are instructed to put those shoes back on, so that they will be ready for their long walk in the wilderness.
The symbolism is powerful. It is no accident that in virtually every culture and every religion there is a ritual of eating that is associated with the deepest things believed about God. For eating is ubiquitous; without eating we die. When we eat, we live. And the point of linking eating and God is to say that when we eat knowing that it is God who provides our sustenance body, mind, and soul, then we will not only be eating but we will be eating well and will be nourished for life’s journey. And we dress in our traveling clothes to acknowledge that God feeds us always and at every point on the journey that is our life. As I say, this powerful meal, first celebrated there in Egypt, became the basis for the Jewish people’s understanding of their life under God, that God is the one who always, always feeds and frees.
But now to the second point: too many preachers pass too quickly by the awful part of this story or gloss it over because we just don’t want to deal with it. You heard it: part of what will happen while the Hebrew people eat that meal is that every firstborn, from humans to cattle to kittens and puppies will die that night. And, in fact, the reason that the meal comes to be called “the Passover” meal is because it is asserted that God indeed was the one killing Egyptian children and that God “passed over” the houses where the Hebrew people had marked their doorposts in a certain way. And the inescapable conclusion, if you simply read this text at face value, is that God’s liberating and freeing some people comes at the price of God hurting and murdering other people and animals.
But, my friends, this is where we need to remind ourselves of what we know about how we should read our Bibles. This is why it is a mistake to think that you can simply pick up your Bible, turn to any verse in it, and treat what falls under your finger as equal in weight or meaning or truth to any other verse. I opened this sermon with stories about people — and that likely includes all of us — who in some way have dual lives. And what we need to know is that throughout the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is that it apparently looks like God has a dual life. For there are indeed two kinds of streams that run throughout the Bible: on the one hand, there is the God who is understood like a warrior, a mighty tyrant, one who uses violence to get his way and do his will. But there is another strain, a gentler stream, that runs throughout the Bible too: that is the stream that shows that when God creates it is not by violence, but by the persuasive power of a word; that is the stream that shows that no matter how badly we screw up, God abides and cares and seeks to forgive and heal and make whole.
But even so, that apparent dual life is scary, isn’t it? Psychologists tell us that one of the chief hallmarks of an abusive parent is a complete and utter inconsistency about how he or she responds to and treats his or her children. The child of such a one never knows whether this is a day when the parent will be loving and caring, or hurtful and mean. And what happens is that the child learns that it is in his or her self-interest not so much to love the parent, although they do, but to learn how to placate the parent in the hopes of there being more good days than horrid days. Is that our God? Well, it would appear so, wouldn’t it, if all we can say is “Well, everyone has something of a dual life and God does too–sometimes. God is violent and even scary; other times God is gentle and nurturing and forgiving and compassionate.”
But we don’t want to say that, do we? We want a God we can worship rather than an inconsistent tyrant that we placate. But how do we have such a God when scripture seems to depict God as indeed having such a dual personality? By remembering an utterly key thing about how to read and interpret and understand our Bibles and that is this: the Bible is not just the record, as if it were some kind of super Tivo or DVR, of what God is like and what God did; no, the Bible is the human attempt over three thousand years to understand what God is like based on God’s dealings with them. Do you hear the difference? It’s the difference between saying something in your own words, and hearing what you said repeated in a way that you may not even recognize! There was a philosophy professor at the University of Chicago in the early twentieth century who never published anything himself about his teachings and beliefs; rather, after his death, his students published books under his name that were their collection of the lecture notes they had kept. Now, some of you in this room have been teachers or parents. Would you want an evaluation and assessment of what you taught based only, only, on what your students or children thought you had said? Don’t you think that there would be opportunity for them to utterly miss the point? No doubt!
And sometimes, my friends, in the long history of the Jewish and Christian people, when a writer wrote something about God that eventually made its way into scripture, that something tells you far more about the person writing than it does about God. Do you really want to think, based on the God that has been shown to you in the face and hands and words and voice of Jesus Christ, that the God of whom it is said in Psalm 147 is that He delights when the Hebrew people dash their enemies’ babies to death on the rocks is saying something about God? Or is it saying more about the situation and the fury of the writer? You cannot simply pick out a verse here and there in that book or any other and say “this is what God definitely and truly is like” because sometimes those verses are in fact the record of a mistaken or incomplete understanding of God, an understanding that God continues to try to correct and improve.
You have no doubt heard quoted the Rev. Theodore Park’s line (a line that became a favorite of Dr. Martin Luther King’s): “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  We could also say this: the arc of the Biblical story of our Jewish and Christian forebearers is also long, but it has bent, in the life of both the Jewish people and the Christian people, towards understanding that God is not a dual personality, not inconsistent, not abusive, not the sort of God who would help to free some folks while hurting and killing others. No, that arc of Biblical faith continues to bend, I believe, towards an understanding that God is the God of all, that God cares for everyone and everything God has made. This is the God whom the writer of Second Peter was describing when he said “It’s not that God is slow in keeping the promise; it’s that God is patient and does not want or will that anyone–anyone! — should perish.” And what is that promise that God so patiently moving us towards? It is exactly what Christ said: the promise of life abundant and life eternal for all people, for all people.
George Herbert Mead
Paraphrased from 1 Peter 3:9
I am indebted to a Professors Clark Williamson and Ron Allen of Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis, Indiana, for their wisdom expressed in private emails with my husband Chuck and I as this sermon was being prepared. I am also very indebted to the Rev. Chuck Blaisdell for his always perceptive thoughts. I am blessed by their insight.