Awake to Love and Freedom
A sermon by Meighan Pritchard Prospect United Church of Christ Seattle, WA September 10, 2017
The Israelites are living in slavery and oppression in Egypt under Pharaoh. They've been there for centuries, and over time their situation has deteriorated to this point. Pharaoh told the Israelite midwives to kill all the boy babies, as you heard a few weeks ago. The Israelites are forced to make bricks, but they are no longer given the straw for brickmaking; their work conditions become more and more oppressive and impossible. They suffer and complain, but they don't know any other way to live. They can't even imagine anything else.
So God sends Moses and his brother Aaron to negotiate their freedom with Pharaoh. When Pharaoh resists, God sends ten plagues upon Egypt.
This is the beginning of a new time for the Israelites. Everything they have known—work, home, food, location—is all about to change. Our reading today says the calendar starts anew from this moment. Perhaps you have had experiences in your life that changed your personal calendar—everything changed from that point on. It could be losing a loved one, or an accident, or giving birth, or getting accepted into a school, getting married—something that changed your world. Maybe it was moving to a new place and starting over. Maybe, like the Israelites, you mark that anniversary every year. This was the date when my life transformed, for better or worse.
Passover marks this new time for the Israelites. They have specific instructions: take a lamb on the 10th of the month, slaughter it on the 14th, roast it and eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. And then this: eat it with girded loins and with your sandals on your feet. Eat it in haste. Leave no leftovers. Eat it, in other words, as if you were about to walk out the door and not come back.
And mark your doorways with the blood of this sacrificial lamb. This is the sign that you are God's people, so that God will know to pass over your house and not kill the firstborn in your family.
We are in our own time of plagues. Here are a few just from this past week:
People are groaning under injustice. Also this week, the president rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals plan, or DACA, which had allowed 800,000 undocumented immigrant children to grow up in this country without the threat of deportation. It had allowed them to attend college, qualify for financial aid, and start their adult lives— careers, homes, families.
When the news of the DACA repeal came out, there was a rally at El Centro de la Raza on Beacon Hill. Hundreds of people came: DACA recipients and their families, social justice organizations, unions, government people. DACA recipients spoke. Parents of DACA folks spoke. Governor Jay Inslee was scheduled to come, but he had to go deal with a different plague: the Jolly Mountain fire. So Lieutenant Governor Cyrus Habib, who himself is the son of Iranian immigrants, pledged to stand with the Washington State DACA people. Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced that he was filing a lawsuit opposing the repeal of DACA. A Muslim woman spoke about people of faith standing together with DACA folks. She asked faith leaders to come and stand on the stage with her while she spoke, so we were there: clergy, imams, rabbis, the Church Council of Greater Seattle, the Faith Action Network.
People living with plagues, either in ancient Egypt or today, learn to prepare for the worst. They eat hastily, with their shoes on, their loins girded, ready to leave on a moment's notice. Or they gather the pets, a few clothes, the photo albums, the essential documents, some food; they put gas in the car, and evacuate when the word comes that the wildfire or hurricane or flood is coming. The undocumented immigrants learn what their rights are, what ID to carry with them, who to call if they get picked up, who will take the kids if the parents are being deported.
I have given several environmental justice workshops in Florida and am Facebook friends with some people there. One pastor near Tampa was posting that people needed to get to higher ground to be out of the way of the storm surge. He was debating whether to evacuate or stay. When I checked Facebook this morning, he had evacuated with his family to Orlando. Other people I met at a workshop last year lived on an island in Florida that was no more than about 6 feet above sea level at its highest. I am thinking a lot about these people right now. Many of them have girded their loins, put on their sandals, and left their homes, not knowing if they will ever be able to return. Their calendar starts anew from this date. This may be the day when everything in their lives changes.
Paul also talks about girding one's loins, in a way: we are to put on the armor of light, put on the Lord Jesus Christ. When it comes down to it, we are to live in love. Paul says all those commandments—"You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet"—are all really about loving our neighbor. If we are loving our neighbor, we are fulfilling these commandments.
Furthermore, if we are living in the light of God's love, we are liberating ourselves from whatever holds us captive, just as the Israelites did in ancient Egypt. Their slavery was literal. Ours may be more metaphorical. We may be bound by social norms that tell us these people are good and those are bad, that labels us all and puts us in separate boxes and teaches us to fear each other. I don't recall exactly what the Muslim woman said in her speech at the DACA rally, but I know that the message conveyed by having many people of different faiths stand together behind her is that we are looking beyond the labels and boxes that try to keep us apart. We refuse to be taught to hate and fear each other. We are all putting on the armor of light and standing together in love.
Marcus Borg writes,
God wills our liberation, our exodus from Egypt. God wills our reconciliation, our return from exile. God wills our enlightenment, our seeing. God wills our forgiveness, our release from sin and guilt. God wills that we see ourselves as God's beloved. God wills our resurrection, our passage from death to life. God wills for us food and drink that satisfy our hunger and thirst. God wills, comprehensively, our well-being—not just my well-being as an individual but the well-being of all of us and of the whole of creation. In short, God wills our salvation, our healing, here on earth. The Christian life is about participating in the salvation of God. [Marcus J. Borg, The God We Never Knew: Beyond Dogmatic Religion to a More Authentic Contemporary Faith]
God tells the Israelites to prepare, because God is doing a new thing, and nothing will ever be the same. Start the calendar to mark a new year— not just a new school year, which started this week in among all these other events—but a new life. A transformed life. God is still speaking, still doing new things, and we get to be part of it if we gird our loins and get ready to move.
What might that new thing look like? Maybe it looks like hosting Mary's Place, which we did for only the second time this summer. We got to meet homeless families face to face, have conversations together over a meal. Maybe it looks like figuring out how to stand alongside our Muslim and Jewish and other faith communities in the face of hate and fear.
Maybe it looks like being intentional about loving our neighbor, as Paul suggests. This summer, the UCC launched what will be a two-year campaign called the Three Great Loves. This campaign focuses on love of children, love of neighbor, and love of creation. It is about listening deeply to the needs of our communities and responding in love.
How do we in the UCC love our neighbor? In Flint, Michigan, as we know, there have been issues with lead in the water for several years now. I don't know all the details, but poorer families were being hit with higher water bills, and when they couldn't pay, they were threatened with having their water turned off. You may think that would be a good thing if it's full of lead anyway, but they still do need their water hooked up and running as their pipes, little by little, get repaired. So this is insult heaped upon injury to then raise the rates and threaten to cut off people's water. The UCC church in Flint has been hosting events around this water issue for some time, shining a light on the justice issues. And when that congregation found out that people were going to lose their water, that church somehow found about $50,000 to create a fund to help people pay their water bills. This is loving your neighbor in a world full of plagues and suffering.
When the hate rally and counter protest took place in Charlottesville this summer, the Rev. Traci Blackmon, executive minister of the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries, was there. She was talking to reporters on MSNBC and elsewhere, lifting up the UCC voice of love and justice in the face of hate and fear. When we love our neighbor, we stand up to hate and racism, and we name it in the light of day.
Last year during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, you may recall that an Episcopal priest asked faith leaders to come bear witness to the protests. He was hoping for maybe 100 people. Three hundred RSVP'd, and over 500 actually showed up. This is loving your neighbor and putting on the armor of light and God.
Our UCC general minister and president, John Dorhauer, calls for us to imagine church creatively, in response to the needs of this time, these people, this place. God called the Israelites to do a new thing in leaving everything they had known and seeking freedom. Through Paul, God called the early Church to do a new thing, to break away from Judaism and become something new following the path of Jesus Christ. God calls us to keep listening, keep praying, keep loving, and keep doing new things with great love.
Paul says it is now the moment for us to wake from sleep. Awaken to God's love, God's good creation, God's power to transform our lives if, like Moses, we run out of excuses to say no and work our way around to saying yes to God's call. Awaken to loving our neighbor, which is inextricable from loving God. Awaken to a heart cracked open to love. Awaken to the freedom to love everybody, regardless of the rules and laws that are supposed to make us label and separate and even hate each other.
On this Reconnecting Sunday, we look forward to a new school year, we reconnect with those we may not have seen much this summer, and we welcome into our midst our new Justice Leadership Program intern and pledge to walk with her in this new adventure to which she is committing. We stand at the edge of a new and exciting moment. Fewer and fewer people are coming to traditional churches like ours, but the need to connect with the holy continues to drive people to God in all sorts of new ways. God is calling us to gird our loins and leave behind the old ways, to move into a new way of being God's people. God is calling us to wake up, to free ourselves from our bonds and live instead in light and love. God is calling us to love our children, our neighbor, and all of creation, even as we see people fleeing for their lives from disasters of all kinds. Maybe the old ways of being the Church are fading. But as long as people are seeking to connect with the Divine, God will call us to be the Church in new and loving ways. May we say yes and prepare for an amazing journey into new territory, awake to love and freedom. Amen.