My sermon two weeks ago was called “My Father Was a Wandering Aramaean,” and it was about Abraham who though he was promised land and descendants spent his life living in tents moving from place to place. I read a sermon this week which put quite a different spin on it, entitled “My Father was a Syrian Refugee.” The point was that our identification with Abraham should make us more willing to identify with the nearly 5 million Syrian refugees today, and really with all at-risk people.
To bring you up to date with the story from two weeks ago, I want to make reference to the maps you were given as you came into worship today, so we can visualize the lives of the nomadic patriarchs we are flying through. The map is actually of the journey of Abraham. Under the guidance of his father, Terah, the family left Ur in Babylonia, on the far right of your page, and traveled up to Haran in ancient Assyria and modern Turkey. After Terah’s death, Abraham felt God’s call to move on, and he traveled south into Canaan, to Beersheba. A famine caused him to travel on to Egypt before returning and settling at Hebron.
When it was time for Abraham’s son Isaac to get married, he didn’t want to marry him to any of the Canaanite women, so he sent a servant back to Haran to find a wife from his people who were still there. The servant came back with Rebekkah, who became Isaac’s wife and the mother of Esau and Jacob. When Jacob cheated Esau out of his birthright and his father’s blessing, Rebekkah sent Jacob back to Haran so Esau wouldn’t kill him. Jacob lived with her brother Laban and ended up marrying his two daughters, Leah and Rachel. After many years and several episodes of Jacob and Laban outwitting each other, Jacob decided to go home and face Esau. He returned to Canaan and settled in Bethel, where he and his two wives raised their twelve children.
One of those children was Joseph, who was treated with favoritism by his father and had a bit of a superiority complex, both of which caused his older brothers to despise him. So they sold him to traders, who took him to Egypt and sold him as a slave there. Falsely accused by his master’s wife of sexual harassment, he was thrown into prison. Are you dizzy yet? We think we live in a mobile society, but this crowd covered lots of difficult territory without any modern means of travel.
Of course you know the story of Joseph interpreting the Pharaoh’s dream to mean that there would be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, which catapulted Joseph from being in prison to being Pharaoh’s right hand man as preparations were made for the famine. As a result, Egypt was the only country prepared when the famine came, and people from all the surrounding countries had to come there for food. Including Joseph’s brothers. They didn’t recognize Joseph and he had some fun with them, but to their great surprise he forgave them what they had done and said that what they had intended for evil, God used for good and for the preservation of much human life. So with Pharaoh’s blessing, Joseph brought his whole family to Egypt to live and they were treated with honor because of Joseph. However, they lived separate from the Egyptians, in Goshen, because they were shepherds and Egyptians looked down on shepherds. And that one little disclaimer sows the seeds of future disaster. The Hebrew people are tolerated for the sake of Joseph, as long as they stay in their place.
After Joseph died, things began to change. The Hebrew people multiplied rapidly and the Egyptian people feared them because of their numbers and because they were different. So they forcibly enslaved them and put them to work on building programs. Then, to handle the population explosition, the Pharaoh decreed that all male children born to the Hebrews be thrown into the Nile to drown. Egypt had the very real potential to be the dead end for the promise of God to Abraham. But a funny thing happened on the way to the extermination of a race.
A baby was born, a boy, in one of the Hebrew families. His mother and sister carried out a clever ruse, putting him in a basket in the Nile where they knew the Pharaoh’s daughter would find him. She did and thought he was cute and took him home, and was given permission to keep him. Clearly they thought nurture would win out over nature. If you take this child from infancy and raise him as an Egyptian, he will have Egyptian values and loyalty and world views. Pharaoh’s daughter even gave him his name, the name of Moses.
But Moses was not blind. He knew he was not one of them. He knew there were other people around who looked like him, and they were slaves to the people he lived among. One day when he was grown he was watching the slaves work and saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave. It made him angry and he killed the Egyptian. Pharaoh was angry and wanted to kill Moses, and the Hebrews regarded Moses as an outsider. So he fled. He crossed the Sinai peninsula and lived in Midian, where he married the daughter of a Midianite priest and was a shepherd for him. That’s when God met him in the burning bush and called him to go back to Egypt to address the slavery problem. That was the absolute last thing in the world Moses wanted to do, and he made every objection he could think of, but he couldn’t get out of it.
When he got back to Egypt, the Hebrews didn’t trust him and the Pharaoh didn’t respect him. Everything he did made the situation worse for the Hebrews, and they got madder and madder at him. Then the plagues started and occasionally Pharaoh would relent about giving them a long weekend to go out into the wilderness to worship their God, but then he would change his mind at the last minute. So finally we come to the tragic final plague and the Passover which are today’s story.
Moses warned Pharaoh that at midnight death would be visited upon the firstborn of everyone in Egypt from the lowest to the highest. Pharaoh could have chosen to avoid this, but did not. As a Pharaoh decreed the death of all male Hebrew children, so a Pharaoh did not act to prevent the death of firstborn Egyptian children.
The instructions given by Moses to the Hebrews about how to prepare for the passing over of this angel of death are told liturgically, even sacramentally. The sacrificing of a lamb without blemish; the smearing of its blood upon the doorpost of the home to mark it as a home to be “passed over”; the way to prepare it, and the number of people to share the meal; the prohibition against leftovers; the preparation of unleavened bread because the meal needs to be eaten in haste; the need to be dressed to travel in a hurry; the need to remember this night and act it out each year to remember God’s mighty act of deliverance.
It was all done, and at midnight death came upon the Egyptian households. In terror, Pharaoh called for Moses and told him to leave with his people. So the people left Egypt, 430 years after arriving with Joseph. But this was not the end of the story. Empires can never let go of free labor, so Pharaoh changed his mind and sent troops out to bring the Hebrew slaves back. The Hebrews were well and truly trapped between the Egyptian army and the sea. But God made a way through the sea for the Hebrews, and brought it crashing down on the Egyptian army, bringing massive destruction to this mighty military machine. Each year when Jewish people celebrate Passover they remember that when they were at their lowest point, mere slaves with no power, God acted to bring them out of slavery and into freedom with a mighty hand. No military on earth is a match for God, especially when God is angered about the enslavement and oppression of at-risk people.
Jesus and the disciples were celebrating the Passover meal in the upper room the night he was arrested. He gave liturgical, sacramental, instruction for how it was to be celebrated from that time forward. “This is my body, broken for you, do this in remembrance of me. This is my blood of the new covenant, shed for the forgiveness of sins. Drink ye all of it.” Death was coming again, this time for God’s own son, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, whose blood causes the angel of death to pass over us. Whether oppression comes from the legalism of the scribes and Pharisees, or the brutality of the Roman Empire, or any of the current day brokers of power and cruelty, God cannot abide it and in time will bring liberation. It matters whether we identify with Pharaoh or with slaves. It matters whether our ancestors got off the Mayflower in search of land and freedom or got off a slave ship from Africa in chains to be sold to a master or tunneled under a fence in Texas looking for economic opportunities.
The promise of Passover is that all lives do indeed matter to God and that we, like Pharaoh, are accountable to God if we do not live in this manner as well. My father was a wandering Aramaean; a refugee from a very angry brother; a slave sold by his brothers, then by traders; a Hebrew refugee looking for food in a famine; a slave making bricks for Pharaoh. That’s a list of really at-risk people, highly vulnerable. Like children and teachers going out on the playground for recess. Like children who are shamed and scarred by bullying. Like a family shattered by the senseless death of a child. Like a family shattered by the senseless death of a husband and father and unable to grieve appropriately because of the circumstances of that death.
Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. One of the stanzas of the hymn we will sing in a few minutes goes like this: “Orphan’s father, widow’s hope, grace from heaven for the earth, you bring home the dispossessed; you set slaves and prisoners free.” May it always be so. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.
David J. Bailey
October 2, 2016
Central Presbyterian Church, Anderson, SC