Clearly, it’s time for freedom. It’s high time for freedom. The time’s up on injustice. It is time for freedom.
After more than four hundred years in the bondage of slavery in Egypt, the people of Israel see a way out. And our text from Exodus 12 drops us right into the middle of one of the most intense and climactic moments in all of scripture. Moses has met the living God, the great, “I am who I am” and in this encounter Moses is sent to carry a message of freedom to God’s people.
And this message Moses carries from God clashes with the ruler Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt. “Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the wilderness,” God says to Pharaoh through Moses. But Pharaoh’s heart is hardened. Nine times a dramatic saga escalates. Pharaoh does not let God’s people go and a series of plagues strike at the heart of the empire, demonstrating the power of God in creation: the Nile turns to blood, frogs and gnats and flies swarm over the land, livestock dies, people are covered in disease, and battered by thunder and pelted with hail. Every green thing is eaten by locusts, and darkness covers the land of Egypt.
A final warning comes from God – the last plague will be the worst – the death of the firstborn – of people and animals. This is an epic clash – the God of all creation versus the false gods of Egypt. The God who sides with the underdog slaves versus a Pharaoh who believes that he is a a god.
We love these types of clashes, these cataclysmic battles. This is the end of any Marvel movie, where a powerful entourage of characters unite to defeat a supervillain in the nick of time. Nine plagues down, we are ready for the final plague and God’s mighty action to free God’s people. We are ready for explosions – for fire and smoke and victory! It’s time for freedom!
And then right at this moment of tense anticipation, God does not offer more thundering words of release to the captive, but institutes a way of keeping time, of remembering time with a meal.
I remember dinners at my grandparents’ homes taking so long and moving so slowly when I was a kid. There was a formality about it – the setting of the table – placing the napkins and forks and knives and spoons just so, filling the water glasses with ice. Then there was the waiting for the meal to begin until everyone was seated. Some kind of word or message from a grandparent and then a prayer and song. Finally, the passing of the food and waiting again to take your first bite until everyone else had their plate full. The adults ate so slowly and talked so much.
“This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you,” our text says. When freedom is so close at hand for the people of Israel, why are they given instructions to join together with one another, to eat a ritual meal? Why must they select a young lamb or goat, make a fire, make bread, and celebrate this as a festival for all coming generations?
The timing of God is mysterious. It can be frustratingly fuzzy. I know that God aches with those who toil in work others force them to do. I know that God dwells with all those who carve home out of places they don’t want to be. I know that God groans with all who face injustice and oppression. I do not have easy answers to why slavery persisted and persists, not just in Egypt, but in America. There are so many places where the prayer, is Lord come, come quickly.
We can be overwhelmed with so many problems but not know what to do. We can feel so busy, so needed, schedules so full, wondering what our longterm impact will be. You might show up in the live of others to heal, to accompany, but never know how things will turn out. You might send emails and write code and attend Zoom calls hoping that there is flourishing on the other end that connection, but never know for sure. We gather with others hoping to encounter belonging and joy, but it is always a risk.
The communal ritual and day of remembrance that is the Passover, begins not only with the triumphant celebration of what God has done, but also with the quiet hope of what God might still do. Before the Passover is a meal eaten by generations in celebration of God’s saving grace and liberating love, it is a meal eaten in hope, by the enslaved.
In the instruction to band together with close neighbors and to slaughter a young sheep or goat, no one is abandoned. Families here are imagined not as the nuclear family of parents and a couple children, but in the unit of however many people it takes to eat an entire goat or sheep in one sitting. The meal is elemental and primal, connecting the community to God’s earth. An animal from the herd, grain from the fields, and herbs from the land, come together to nourish a people so ready to be free. The lamb is not to be stewed but fire-roasted, the simplest of meals – heat and meat. All of the animal must be eaten or burned in the fire. This meal will represent a break with the soon to be past life of slavery in Egypt. The bread is unleavened. No sourdough starter will be taken with them from this place. This is their last meal here. Time slows, even as they eat in haste under the blood-smeared frames of their homes, ready to leave everything behind.
Is this enough? It sure seems that that this world needs more than just getting a few flatbread sandwiches loaded up with barbecue. Calling together a rag-tag bunch of families for a potluck to share seems so inadequate as the mechanics of empire grind on and the dark shadow of death stalks the night.
Yet on this final twilight supper for the people of Israel in the land of Egypt, God gives them a meal to fuel them for their freedom journey. And in the generational memory of scripture, God gives the people of Israel a meal to eat again and again, so that they might remember that it was God’s action that brought about their freedom from all that enslaves.
In our lives and our world, God continues to set us free from the forces of death. And as God leads us to this freedom, we encounter time differently.
We don’t always know when God’s big moments of freedom will come – but our scripture tells us to be ready: to eat with others, to have sandals on our feet and staffs in our hands, clothing hitched up ready to move, our houses and our lives marked as dwellings of life. Maybe you have those daily or weekly or year-defining rituals and practices that prepare for God’s work in your life. You have things you do to mark time in a way that begins with God. It could be a short prayer before you walk into the room of a patient. It could be that grateful pause before eating. It could be the big party you throw every year where you pull out all the stops.
We don’t know when God’s big moments of freedom happen, though we yearn and wait and hope for them. Those digging through earthquake rubble in Morocco need God’s liberating power in a mighty way. The person, fighting for their life with an addiction, who has clawed through shame to reach out for help for the tenth time, needs God’s freeing power right now. The high schooler who struggles to focus and learn in class because they’re worried when the next shooting will happen needs God’s calming presence right now.
We all need God’s healing, liberating, saving, freeing presence in our lives and our world now. And we also need food for the freedom journey.
And so we celebrate the way God in the stories and rituals of scripture, continues to feed us with life-giving hope that indeed God is still working to bring freedom to the enslaved, life to those in the valley of the shadow of death.
Yet even in the celebration of God bringing freedom, we might be left with a bitter taste in our mouth. It is the taste of blood.
Why is God’s bringing of justice so blood-stained? Why did every firstborn in the land of Egypt have to die so God’s people could go free?
Yesterday, I drove out to a woodworking store in Cary that was having its 40th anniversary celebration. There was free food, discounts, demonstrations, and project displays by local woodworking clubs.
But the moment that will stick with me was a demonstration by the representative of SawStop, a company that makes these really nice, expensive, high quality table saws, equipped with flesh-detecting, blade-stopping technology. The SawStop salesman was giving his spiel …emphasizing the grim statistic that every 9 minutes in the U.S. there is a table saw accident – many resulting in amputations. A crowd gathered around him, some listening to his words about the saw’s accuracy and the safety technology’s millisecond-quick activation mechanism. But most people’s eyes kept glancing at the single hot dog ominously sitting on the saw.
The waited-for moment finally came. He powered up the saw, raised the spinning blade to full height, and began pushing the hot-dog closer and closer to the blade.
Wham. Faster than any of us could see – with a loud noise the blade miraculously vanished out of sight. We all leaned forward to see only the slightest of nicks on the hot dog. A minute later, he replaced the blade-stopping cartridge, put a new blade back on the saw and it was good to go again. No blood, no fingers lost, back in business.
I wonder if there’s a part of us that really wishes God in this Exodus story was like that SawStop saw. That at some point in the story, when the clash between the false gods of slavery and domination and the true God of Creation is at a fever pitch, when the entire Marvel Universe is assembled for one final battle, when the people have slaughtered their animals and eaten their meal and are ready to leave in freedom, we wish they could simply walk out of Egypt and there would be no one killed.
That is the ache of my heart, a heart shaped by Mennonite theologies of nonviolence. I hope this is the heart of God, that cannot bear one person be left behind on the road to freedom.
But this Exodus story, this Passover text, does not portray a SawStop God. There is blood here. The tenth and final plague comes and strikes down the firstborn of the Egyptians. There is blood in our world. Blood runs through each of us, carrying life-giving oxygen and nutrients to our many cells. Blood is shed so many places we wish it never was.
And yet each of us is carried along in the stream of life only by the love of God. For our God is not a band of superheroes or a precision machine, but God is our Creator, Liberator, and Sustainer. And our scriptures aren’t engineered, clean-cut histories of cause and effect, but stories of salvation, they’re freedom songs to be passed down and sung again. Our God is mysterious beyond our comprehension yet brings life in human ways.
In the shadows of the night, in scattered homes marked by a hope for life, in the sharing of a simple feast, anywhere two or three gather to celebrate God’s saving work, in all of these places freedom bursts forth… in God’s time.