View print-optimized version | View pdf of bulletin

Sunday, September 6, 2020 | 11:00 a.m.

Ritual and Vision

Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 149
Exodus 12:1–14, 25–27

The small mud home was getting dark as night began to fall. The small family living within its walls consisted of two parents and two little girls. There had been a baby boy once as well. But thanks to Pharaoh’s command, the baby boy returned to God shortly after his birth, as the waters of the Nile replaced the waters of the womb. The family tried to not think too much about him. It was all too painful. Rather, they did their best to focus on what was next. And on that evening, the ritual was next. Their leaders, Moses and Aaron, had instructed the enslaved Israelite people as to what they were to do on that night. (A resource I used for this sermon is Jewish Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. New York: William Murrow, 2001. It is a very reputable resource for Jewish history and thought. It helped me remember all of the “whats” and the “whys” that are involved in the Seder service.)

The fire had been kindled outside. This family and the one next door were sharing the year-old lamb, each taking a portion. They roasted it over the fire, then mixed the bitter herbs with it. The bread had been made without leaven for there was no time for yeast. Everything was done with great expediency. Small knapsacks were packed with the things they could not bear to leave behind: the baby boy’s receiving blanket, the little girl’s corn husk doll, a few pieces of cloth for mending.

One of the girls walked outside and peered up at the doorway. She noticed the blood smeared on the doorposts, but she did not ask any questions. At least not yet. Her questions would come. As a matter of fact, as this meal would unfold year after year, the same ritual, the same food, the same peculiar and particular traditions, the children would be encouraged to ask why. “Why do we eat so quickly, Papa? Why do we eat flat bread, Mama?” And then her parents would remind her of the story.

They would remind her of their years spent in slavery and oppression. They would remind her of her brother’s watery grave in the Nile. They would remind her how the Eternal One heard their cries of grief and suffering, passed over their home, and led them into freedom accompanied by Moses’ and Miriam’s courage. The questions would come, as would the story, year after year. But on that night no one spoke much at all. They were too afraid. They did not know what the journey would be like. But they were as ready as they could be. Loins girded, sandals on feet, staff in hand. Waiting. Waiting for the freedom ride. Waiting to be able to fully breathe. Waiting for Moses to announce it was time.

Generations passed. Many, many generations. So many generations had passed that stories of enslavement and brickmaking, stories of genocide and plagues, stories of wilderness and murmuring seemed far removed from their everyday lives. Some of the Israelites were now in positions of power and influence. Commerce was rather good, and jobs were plentiful. Baby boys were born in hope, not in fear. No one needed to pack small knapsacks and leave them by the door. Sandals were typically removed at mealtime. Staffs leaned up against walls. The Israelites were able to breathe in ways their ancestors never could have imagined.

So many generations had passed since that first Passover night, that first Passover meal. And that feeling of emotional and spiritual distance from their history as a people was precisely why, every early spring, the parents would gather the family together for the ritual and liturgy of Passover worship. The fire was kindled. The lamb roasted. Bitter herbs mixed with it. Bread made without leaven. And as they walked through each aspect of the meal, a meal that was growing in complexity and meaning throughout the years, the youngest child would ask questions.

“Why is this night different from all other nights?” the child would begin, asking the first of four questions. And after the child went through them all, a parent would respond: “We celebrate tonight because we were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, and the Eternal One delivered us with a mighty hand. Had not the Holy One, blessed be God, redeemed our people from Egypt, we, our children, and all the generations yet to come would have remained enslaved“ (The New Union Haggadah, Revised Edition).

On those nights when the family gathered together, eating the same meal they had eaten for generations, asking the same questions they had asked for generations, worshiping in the same way they had worshiped for generations, as they sat and ate surrounded by such depth of feeling and such reimmersion into identity, they felt as if it had all happened just yesterday. They felt as if it were their own backs stooped over by slavery; their own baby boys snatched from their arms; their own hearts beating with fear and anticipation over the long walk to freedom. On those nights, they felt as if it would be their house that the Lord would soon pass over; their family who would be spared; and their souls that would finally find release and hope for a new day.

Every year as they worshiped surrounded by such depth of feeling and such reimmersion into identity, they would also recall the words and warnings of the prophets, for as Jewish people they knew in their bones that responsibility walked hand in hand with freedom. They may be settled and free now, but they had once been enslaved in Egypt’s land. Some of them may hold positions of power and influence now, but they had once been so low that only the Eternal One could lift their heads.

After the Seder had concluded, they would look around at their world with new Passover eyes and see all those still enslaved by poverty or circumstance or identity, and that Passover vision prodded them each day to seek out the widow and the orphan, biblical shorthand for those most vulnerable in their day and time. Their Passover vision awaked in them a deep concern for the ones still on the margins, because when they had lived on the margins, God had shown deep concern for them. Their worship and their rituals reminded them year after year of all they had been through as a people and how God remained faithful still. With each Passover meal, with each remembering and reenacting, their Jewish identity was sealed and deepened, and the covenant to be God’s people, to actively live out that claim into the world, to be a part of God’s tikkun olam, God’s repairing of the world, was renewed in each heart.

Generations passed. Many, many, many generations. So many generations passed that nations had risen and fallen in that time. And in a synagogue fellowship hall in Chicago, Illinois, a group of Presbyterians and other Christians and a group of Reformed Jews sat at table together. The dishes were carefully laid out. Matzah filled a plate in front of each small grouping of people. Horseradish, symbolizing the bitter herb, sat on the side. Kharoset, a paste of nuts and apples, symbolizing the mortar from their days of making bricks along with the sweet taste of freedom from that work, was also placed on the table. Cups of kosher wine were poured at different parts of the meal. A smattering of Jewish children and Christian children also sat amongst the adults, looking at it all, looking at us all, and you could see the questions forming in their minds.

The rabbis led us through the ritual. We participated in the different blessings and songs. We asked the four questions that have been passed along from generation to generation. We took turns reading portions of the Exodus story. We actively remembered the oppression, the slavery, the fear, and the death. We heard anew the anguished cries of the enslaved Israelites and how God also had heard those cries and responded.

Then the senior rabbi led us through a rehearsal of the ten plagues. As we listed each plague, we also spilled a drop of wine for each one, for the rabbi taught us that the joy over their freedom would always be diminished by the suffering of the ancient Egyptians. As a people they believed that if anyone suffered, they had a duty to respond, for with great freedom comes great responsibility. And as we watched the drops of wine hit the plate, reminding us that all is still not well, we all once again pledged to work in our own community for justice and for freedom. We pledged to never forget those who were the most vulnerable and overlooked, those who were still suffering, because we were once slaves in Egypt’s land and the Eternal One had heard our cries and set us free. How could we turn away from the cries of others?

On that night five years ago, the singing, the eating, and the celebrating lasted for hours, and as I sat in the midst of it all, I felt surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. I felt reimmersed in an identity that I had almost forgotten. In that communal time of remembering and reenacting, in that moment of worship, my own identity as a follower of Jesus was sealed and deepened, and the covenant to be God’s people, to actively live out that claim into the world, to be a part of God’s tikkun olam, God’s repairing of the world, was renewed in my heart.

For as the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in a Letter from the Birmingham Jail, “In a real sense all life is inter-related. All [people] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.” I saw that truth embodied on that night.

Next month, on October 4, which is World Communion Sunday, we will gather around the Lord’s Table. Because we continue to worship together virtually, each week making our personal space into worship space, there will be all kinds of tables, in all kinds of rooms, located in cities and towns and rural areas across the country and in different nations around the world. And we will all gather around those tables, strangers and friends, young and old and in-between, by ourselves or with a family or roommates, inhabiting different shades of skin and using a whole variety of accents and languages.

We will all participate as the bread is broken, because we will break it in our own home. We will all be a part of the pouring of the cup, because we will pour it where we are. And throughout it all, we will actively remember that all are invited, for it is the risen Jesus who stands as host, and his guest list is endless. As we pray the Prayer of Great Thanksgiving and hear the Words of Institution, we will be called upon to remember another long-ago meal at Passover in an upper room. A long-ago meal hosted by our Savior that speaks to us of both great freedom and great responsibility, for the suffering of anyone calls out for our response. A long-ago meal that continues to shape who we are and invite us into who we could be. A long-ago meal that reminds us of God’s lavish grace, deep mercy, and vulnerable love.

And when the child asks, “Mom, why does Pastor Shannon break that bread?” you might respond, “Because God wants us to know that nothing separates us from God’s love—not even the ways we mess up or Jesus’ death.” And if she asks, “But why does Pastor Shannon pour the cup?” you might say, “because that is what Jesus did with his friends to show them forgiveness and a new start.” And as they grow older, the reasons you give can also grow in biblical depth and theological complexity.

Yet the everlasting gift of the ritual, the meal we call Communion, is that all along the way, as we watch and ask, as we eat and drink, we will hear again and again about how our God came to us in Jesus Christ to fully share our lives—our joy and our pain, our anger and our playfulness, our birth and even our death, so that we might share in God’s newness, Christ’s community, and even the promise that death is not the end of our story. As we remember and reenact this communion meal, our identity as followers of Christ will be nourished and deepened, and the covenant to be God’s people, to actively live out that baptismal claim into the world, will be renewed in each of our hearts.

And we will leave that time of worship, just as we leave every time of worship, with different vision, one more akin to God’s vision—a vision that views all people as family; a vision that calls us to consistently turn aside and notice those we might not normally notice; a vision that reminds us that when we see injustice, we have a God-given responsibility to interrupt it and to change it; a vision that compels us to do all we can to be a part of God’s repairing of this world. It is who we are. May it be so. Amen.

A resource I used for this sermon is Jewish Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. A resource for Jewish history and thought, it helped me remember all of the whats and the whys that are involved in the Seder.