This past Sunday they let me have the pulpit. I know, right?? x) Here’s what I said.
When I was a young girl one of my favorite times of the year was summer. Summer meant freedom from schoolwork, long afternoons playing with neighborhood children, and best of all: family vacation. We always went around the first of July, which coincided nicely with my birthday on July 8th. One year we were in Florida, I was about seven or eight, and we stopped at a local grocery store to get a birthday cake. My parents told them my name so they could add it under “Happy Birthday”, and an hour later we returned to pick it up.
On the way home we noticed something about that birthday cake: “birthday” had been misspelled as “brithday”. Raucous laughter ensued.
Ever since then when my family has gathered to celebrate my birthday, when the cake comes out we make sure it says “brithday”. My nieces and nephews are usually in charge of cake decoration, and so the story is told every year about why we spell Auntie Kathleen’s cake wrong.
Over the years this has come to symbolize something special for me; the nostalgia of family vacations, of riding in our minivan for hours, sleeping in hotels, and our favorite beach-side restaurants. When I eat that brithday cake I am remembering the times that my family came together to bond and become the cohesive family unit that we are today. I feel connected to that specific time and place, but also all of the times since then that we have come together around a misspelled birthday cake. And, hopefully, the times that we will in the future.
I’m sure you have stories like this too. Stories of family events gone wrong, or special occasions that everyone remembers fondly. Stories and traditions that are recalled when the family is all together and passed on to new generations. As members of the family of God, we also have stories that have been passed down to us; stories that link us with our collective spiritual family past, present, and future.
Today we read from Exodus. In that reading we learned about a very important event: Passover. Although it seems to be a strange list of instructions it is, nevertheless, a text we can connect with because it concerns a celebration supper—much like my birthday cake, it too is a special meal with a special story.
To give some context to today’s reading, things in Egypt are coming to a head. The most terrible of all plagues is about to happen and the result will be a glorious exodus from slavery for a people who had been held in bondage for over four centuries. You’d think this would be a gripping narrative told straight through. After all, that’s what we do when we tell this story in Sunday school.
However, if you’ve never read Exodus chapters 11 and 12 in their entirety, you should try it sometime. What will immediately strike you is how this incredible portion of the Exodus story gets all but buried beneath lists of liturgical details and instructions. In Exodus 11 and 12 there are 23 verses devoted to telling the actual story of the tenth plague and the subsequent release from Egypt.
But nowhere in those 23 verses is this story told straight out and without interruption. In between those 23 verses are a whopping 52 verses of Passover instructions. The verses devoted to instruction outnumber the verses that tell the story two to one. TWO to ONE! Chapter 11 gives us pretty much a straight narrative, but then Exodus 12:1-28 is all instruction. Reading further we get a brief interlude of story again before chapter 12 concludes with another nine verses recapitulating the Passover restrictions, rules, and regulations with still more to come in the first 16 verses of chapter 13. History, it seems, is encased by religious practice. This text shows us that we need ways to remember important events. Specific ways. Simply re-telling the story is not enough—as humans, we need action. Some kind of physical way in which we can enter into the story. This is the truth that I want to lift up to you all today: commemorating important events requires us to not only remember but also to act.
Another way we can see the importance of this commemoration is through the new calendar that is created. So not only do we have physical instructions on how to commemorate an important event, we have a whole new orientation to life. The events reported in these verses represent a new beginning for Israel. At one time or another we have all had central and shaping events happen in our lives—like misspelled birthday cakes, a wedding, the birth of a first child or grandchild. These are seminal turning points, things you’ll never forget, events that even when you near the end of your life you will still be able to claim as key components that made you who you are. But even so, none of those events caused you to do something as radical as to tear up all the calendars in your house so that you could invent a whole new system of time-keeping with that day–the day of your child’s birth or your wedding day or the date on which you graduated college–that day would become New Year’s Day for you from then on.
Yet that is exactly what God tells Moses would be true for Israel. At the beginning of chapter 12 God tells Moses to create a brand new calendar with that day and that month being the equivalent of January. In other words, God is doing an act of new creation. In some way God at least sees what is happening to Israel as re-making the world. History is going to start over right here and right now. That’s why the events themselves are so encumbered with instructions on how best to remember the events forever.
Never underestimate the power of memory, or how God himself may use memory to make us part of something. Our collective memories have the power to bind us together, not only with each other but with generations past, present, and future. To this day, when observing the Passover, the Jews don’t say, “We remember this night how God led those people long ago out of Egypt and through the Red Sea.” Instead they let memory hook them into the divine narrative by saying, “We remember this night how God led us out of Egypt and through the Red Sea.” Another way of putting this is: History is what happened to others, memory is what happened to me.
By the act of remembrance, we become something we would not otherwise be. We become that people. That story becomes our story. When we remember the sacred story, when we connect ourselves to that narrative, we become part of the very act. The act of commemoration links us to the past and to the future; to what God has done, what God is doing, and what God will do to free us from our own bondage.
Retelling a story is simply not enough for us. As human beings we need action as a way to enter into a narrative, and one of the ways we can do this is through prayer. As many of you know I am the campus minister for St. Paul’s at MTSU. Last week we had our second annual Semester Blessing here in the nave. It is a tradition that I hope will continue on as I believe it is important to ask for God’s blessings and to remember the blessings that we are already experiencing. Gathering to pray for the school year, for the faculty, staff, and students, is a way in which we connect our faith and our life—it is an action that reminds us that God is with us and God is working within us, as well as the community around us.
So what does all this mean for us? How does this apply to our lives? Well, Passover remains the central celebration in Judaism, but in Christianity we have the Eucharist. Passover meant liberation for the Hebrew people, liberation from slavery and deliverance to the promised land. The Eucharist also means liberation for all who partake, freedom from sin and freedom from the world. You have the blood of the lamb on a doorpost in Exodus and the blood of Christ in a cup in the Gospels. Both are stories of salvation, and both are commanded by God to be remembered in very specific, active ways.
In a few minutes we will celebrate the Eucharist. We will tell the story of Jesus’ last supper, in which he brought us into a new relationship with one another and with God. It is open to all who remember that Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. But simply telling this story is not enough—we need action, something physical to connect us to Jesus and the disciples and that Passover feast long ago. When you come forward to receive the bread and wine, what’s happening for you? Are you distracted by the world, or are you fully present at the altar rail? When we come to receive the bread and wine this is, at least for me, a very holy moment. It is holy because it is when I enter into the act of remembrance—when WE enter the story. We remember what God has done, is doing, and will do in our lives. Amen.