Sermon by Rev. Todd Weir
September 6, 2020
Scripture: Exodus 12
Today’s biblical text begins with the 10th and final plague on Egypt. Because of COVID, I have some new questions about this scripture. What does it take to recognize a plague is a real threat? What did the average Egyptian think as Moses and Pharaoh dueled over the fate of the Hebrew slaves? First, the water turned red. That is a real thing. Plankton can create a bioluminescent red tide, so that could have been a natural occurrence. Then came the frogs. At first, the kids ran in the streets trying to catch them. Frogs are cute, think Kermit. But at night, it gets pretty loud. Then came the annoying gnats, the pesky flies. I was once swarmed on a trail and any exposed flesh was attacked. Flies draw blood and we ran for 10 minutes back to our car and shut ourselves inside. I would have been done in Egypt at the plague of flies.
But not Pharaoh. It took hail and boils covering everyone’s bodies, and locusts eating everything in sight and even a three-day solar eclipse, living in total darkness. We have it easy, just wear a mask and keep a physical distance. But Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened. Were common Egyptians stoic like my Iowa forebearers who farmed through flood, drought, and pestilence? What was Sphinx News saying about these odd and devastating hardships? Was it the judgment of God, or “fake news?” Did they blame on the Hebrew virus? Did the experts say it would be gone in a few weeks, and a few deaths are better than tanking the economy?
Which plague leads to the closing of the restaurants? What did they do about school for their children? Were people unhappy with Pharaoh and wanted him gone, or did they stick with him because the temple priests of Ra, the Sun God, said he was the chosen one. They liked the pyramids, and besides, the only thing worse than a series of plagues was a slave revolt. That would certainly bring down the Cairo 500 index and ruin everyone’s retirement.
What did people think when they heard stories of the terrible working conditions and hardships of the slaves? Did the human suffering break their hearts or did they think, well Hebrews had it worse back in their country? We are doing them a favor. How many Egyptians worked as guards and taskmasters? When a slave was whipped to death, did anyone hold the guard accountable? Or did people say, you know most of the guards are really good people? There are a few bad apples, but most are fair, my cousin or my neighbor works at the pyramids and he is a great Dad. Besides, most of those Hebrews are criminals and violent by nature. We need law and order.
Is it fair to ask these questions of a historical text, questions more about the present than ancient Egypt? If the past constantly impacts the present, then the answer is “yes.” Especially since the Exodus story is central to our tradition, enough to be a Hollywood epic three different times. I’ve seen the 10 Commandments by Cecile B. DeMille with Charlton Heston, and Disney produced the animated “The Prince of Egypt.” Maybe you saw “God’s and Kings” and it was odd to see one more white guy play Moses, but especially to see Batman as Moses.
None of these movies brought home the central point of the drama. What is God doing in human life amidst injustice? How should we respond to the work of God today? For example, Cecile B. DeMille called his version of Exodus “The 10 Commandments.” Why didn’t he simply leave the biblical name of Exodus? Were the 10 commandments the point of Exodus? I ask because in 1860, many copies of “The Slave Bible” were produced. It was a brief version of the Bible, with passages to help the slaves learn the Christian faith, with specific uplifting passages about obeying masters and keeping your mind on good things. The only part of Exodus in the Slave Bible was the 10 Commandments. Don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t lie, honor your father and mother, (and master) were fine. But don’t get any ideas about an escape to the Promised Land up North. If we don’t deal with the central message of Exodus and Passover, the liberation from oppression, then we aren’t reading the whole Bible.
So let’s get to the core challenge. What do the plagues and Passover mean for us right now, especially since we might just feel amid multiple plagues? The author of Exodus saw the frogs, flies, and blood in the water as the work of God to convince Pharaoh to release the Hebrews from slavery. How do we understand COVID, and the derecho hurricane-like winds in Iowa, and California wildfires, and continued tropical storms along the Gulf Coast? Is God trying to tell us something? Is our nation being punished for our sins?
The mind of God is above my pay grade. I stick to Personnel, not the management of creation. I’m reluctant to say that God uses storms and plagues to tell us when we are sinful because I’ve have seen much harm done with bad theology. It’s too easy to combine your pet issue with the most recent disaster and say this is God’s judgment for X. Too often the X factor is prejudice against being gay, or pro-choice, and prayer in public schools. (I can guarantee there will be a lot of praying happening in schools this year.) How are we to tell if a hurricane striking the port of Galveston, Texas is God’s judgment for not believing biblical literalism or a judgment on the fossil fuel industry covering its shores?
Here is how I understand God’s spirit in times of storms and plagues. When disaster strikes, pay attention to who is affected and how we deal with it. Disaster reveals the flaws and short-comings within human community. The poorest neighborhoods are always located on the flood plain, next to the toxic factory, lacking in the facilities for clean drinking water. Studies even show that poor neighborhoods are hotter than wealthy neighborhoods because of the lack of green spaces and trees. People of color and poor people are more affected by COVID because of less access to health care, and more likely to have risk factors like asthma due to poor air quality.
While God may not be speaking through COVID or sending hurricanes, God does speak to us through human suffering. If we shut it out, ignore it and keep delaying the problems, they don’t just get better on their own. I was struck when re-reading the text that Pharaoh kept agreeing to do what Moses asked, and then going back on his promises. Several times Pharaoh agrees to let the slaves go. Moses even prays and the locusts disappear, but when things are safe again, it is right back to business as usual, injustice as usual.
I want to deal with one final issue, the Passover itself. Most of us long to be passed over from our plagues and woes. We often feel overwhelmed by all this struggle and injustice, not close enough to power to make a difference, and too tired from keeping our own lives together to do even one more thing. What are we called to do at this moment? Here is what occurred to me reading today’s text. In this account about Moses, Pharaoh and God struggling, today’s reading in Exodus 12 stops to explain the Passover ritual and what people are to do, not only on that night but to continually remember God as liberator. At first, it seems strange to insert this text about liturgy and worship into an epic story of disasters and plagues. Do prayers and songs and liturgies matter in the face of large-scale plagues, and systemic racism, and threats to our elections?
In Exodus 12:1, God says, “This month shall be for you the beginning of months…” In other words, Israel’s history begins again with Passover. The instructions say each year you will eat lamb together, and have a feast to remember and teach your children. You will eat unleavened bread that has no time to rise, to remember that you have to be ready to move when God acts. I want to emphasize that again. Passover is not just thanksgiving for staying safe, being passed over by the danger, but to be ready to move and embrace God’s liberation and justice.
Amid injustice, many people are called to brave and bold things, as well as small kindnesses and support. But notice that everyone is called at Passover to this act of ritual and worship. The act of Passover worship precedes the liberation event, it is not just a Thanksgiving after the fact.
Ritual is not simply an act of memory. When we pray and sing and read scripture and worship together, several things are happening:
it is an act of embracing the past work of God among the people,
It is calling on God to be present with us now in our current injustice and distress,
and pledging our life and energy to the ongoing hope and witness of God’s love and justice.
Each Passover and I would add each communion service, calls us to be present to the God who not only forgives us and loves us, but also bends the arc of history towards justice. As I invite you to communion, remember this:
Communion feeds us so we can be strengthened for the days ahead.
Communion brings us together into community because we cannot do this alone.
And finally, communion calls us to walk with God and act with justice.
Soon, I will invite you to God’s table, where we will know all of these good gifts from our generous God. And tune in next week and we will talk about the people stuck between Pharaoh’s army and the Red Sea.