Sermon at Trinity Episcopal Church
by Rabbi David Zaslow,
March 28, 2004
שָׁלוֹם עֲלֵיכֶם, Shalom Alekhem, peace be unto you. The major theme of the Jewish festival of Passover is liberation: we were slaves but the mighty hand and outstretched arm of the Holy One set us free. Each year for the past 3,300 years Jewish people have gathered in their homes on the full moon in the month of Nissan to retell the story of our Exodus, and to make of that ancient story relevant to our lives today. When the youngest child in the household asks the formulaic four questions beginning with “why is this night different from all over nights,” a chain reaction of responses is set in motion. Each person at the seder table shares his and her own a personal response to the Exodus story.
Hebrew, by its nature, promotes interpretation, storytelling, and the extension of the plain meaning of the text into all its metaphorical and allegorical possibilities. For example, the word for Egypt in Hebrew is actually not that of a particular nation, but rather it means “tight, narrow, and restricted places.” The word mitzrayim implies that enslavement is not only caused by the external and oppressive forces of a regime like that of the ancient Egyptian empire, but that there is an internal source of enslavement as well. So, from ancient times to this very day Jewish people ask each other at the seder table, implicitly or explicitly, “What are the tight and narrow places that are holding you back from becoming the free, creative, joyous, and liberated person that God would have you be this year?”
Another interesting word to study is the word “Pharaoh.” We all know, of course, that pharaoh was the title for each of the various a monarchs in ancient Egypt. But the word in Hebrew can be translated as “a mouth of that speaks evil.” So on Passover week we examine the subtle ways in which our mouths and speech get us into trouble. And knowing how difficult it is to change old, negative behavioral patterns, we ask for God’s intervention and aid in liberating of us from our old ways that enslave us, especially concerning the ways we speak to and about each other. Bottom line – Passover, to each Jew, must be a modern, relevant, and challenging story to each of us and not merely the retelling of an ancient Bible story, no matter how beautiful that story might be.
The prophet Isaiah 43:18 is told by the Lord: “Do not remember the former of things, or consider the things of old. I’m about to make new; now it springs forth. Don’t you see it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” Is the prophet asking us to forgo the retelling of the Exodus story at Passover each year? No, but he is informing us in no uncertain terms that God does not need us to tell the old story unless its purpose is to make us new. Don’t we see it? All our old stories – national, tribal, religious, and personal – can become subtle idols at that we adore and worship, unless we permit our stories to touch us, heal us, and transform us. Only in this way will we discover that the wilderness of our lives has a way, a path, an invisible highway for us to follow, and that there is indeed a river flowing in the desert of our lives.
So here are the questions that we might ask ourselves this year: “Am I telling the same old story this year as I did last year? Am I telling my story as an excuse not to move forward toward my own liberation? Or am I telling my story and permitting God to make me new?”
The Christian story of Easter is the story of resurrection. It is not just Christ’s life that is central for you, and not just that he died for you. But it is in the resurrection that you are given the secret to God’s promise to make you new. If you only retell the passion story as a remembrance of things of old, if you only share the story of Jesus’ life as a history lesson, you are not doing the work that Easter requires of you. To find your way in the wilderness and make a river in your desert God asks each of you to explore the meaning of the resurrection in your own personal lives. What dream of yours has been crucified? What part of your life is on the cross with your Savior? What part of you has already died but has within it the promise of reawakening, of spring’s renewal, of resurrection?
Do you see the parallels in our two stories? They’re both springtime stories: ours is the story of liberation of the people to be interpreted and told as a story of personal liberation; yours is the story of the resurrection of Christ to be interpreted and told as the personal promise by God of your own reawakening. In Philippians 3, Paul says “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection in the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” Paul is not content with the story of things of old, or with the telling of resurrection of Jesus as a historical event. No, he strives toward his own resurrection; not just a resurrection after he dies, but a resurrection of things dead while he is yet alive.
Do you see what Paul is saying here? Precisely what the Prophet Isaiah was trying to say. Take your story and transform it into a living process; take history and make it present; take the enslavement or the crucifixion of others and make it personal and relevant. In Psalm 126, King David sings: “When the Holy One brings about our return to Zion, we will have been like dreamers. Then our mouths will be filled with laughter, and our tongues with joyous song. They will say among the nations: ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’ The Lord has done great things for us and we rejoiced. Turn again our captivity, O Lord as the streams is in the Negev. Though now he walks weeping carrying his bag of seed – he will return with joyous song carrying his sheaves.” May all of us who now sow in tears realize that soon we will reap in joy!
After our Passover, and after your Easter, with God’s blessing and with all the introspection and inner work that we are doing to make this season meaningful, may we meet each other in the street and be as dreamers who share a common dream. May our be mouths be filled with song and laughter! May we each return to the Zion of gratitude, happiness, health. God’s promise is that though we sow in tears, we are like the earth that has received the waters of the winter rains that have just passed, and through the rains, our tears, our joy is made possible. The equinox has passed, the full moon we both await is coming. It is almost Passover, almost Easter. We are readying ourselves for liberation and resurrection. Time will not wait for us. As the angel of death passes over our homes at midnight, may we mark our doorposts with the blood the lamb and be ready, in an instant, to be set free. God bless this church, our community, our nation, and our planet in this moment of renewal, liberation, and resurrection. Have a zisen (sweet) Pesach, and a transformative Easter.