Do not leave any of it till morning; if some is left till morning, you must burn it. This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the Lord’s Passover.
-from Exodus 12
Happy New Year!
Not really, of course. Passover will begin on April 3rd of next year, so we’re reading this passage at the wrong time.
It’s the excitement of a New Year’s celebration, though, that permeates this passage. The Passover redefines time itself, announcing the opening of a brand new era.
Let’s backtrack, though. Last week, we met Moses-the-felon, sideswiped by a burning bush demanding that he head back to Egypt to lead the Hebrew people into freedom. This week, we get a glimpse of the Hebrew people departing from Egypt. In between lies a pretty good story.
Moses wasn’t exactly thrilled with God’s plan, you might say. Moses, in fact, was emphatically dismissive of God’s plan. Moses argued with God until God started to get rather testy about the matter.
Have you had one of those arguments with God, in which you knew exactly what you needed to do but were still looking for a way out? If you’ve been there, then you won’t be surprised that the end result has Moses right back in Egypt, just as God had instructed.
There were epic fights with Pharaoh. There were plagues, each worse than the last. There were doubts among the Hebrew people themselves as to whether listening to Moses was a good idea- and moments when those doubts seemed quite reasonable.
But here they are, on their new New Year’s Eve, preparing to leave Egypt and venture off toward the Promised Land.
Within days, the Hebrew people will be begging to return to slavery. That seems irrational, to us. “You’d rather be making bricks with no straw? You’d rather have Pharaoh’s forces sweep in and kill every baby boy in the land? You’d rather deal with the stick and the whip, when the cloud by day and the fire by night are here to lead us?”
Well, yes. And if we’re honest, Friends, we make the same choice all the time. Option A is striking out into the unknown with only ephemeral pillars to guide us. Option B is staying home, enslaved to what we already know. Option B, as I think you well know, is pretty popular.
Here’s the trick, though, for getting through this impasse: you just don’t call slavery for what it is. This is the George Orwell of theological approaches. It’s creepy, if you notice it, but the beauty is in that you don’t.
For instance, our meeting’s third quarter giving reports will be going out this week. I have no interest in shaming people, and I’m not speaking to anyone in particular… but do you know that you could be contributing more? Maybe you can’t. I don’t want to see the balance of your checking account. But, are you in a position where you know that you ought to be doing better, and you just don’t want to, so you don’t?
That’s an awful heavy burden to keep on your conscience! How about we reframe it, to take some of weight off. It’s not that you are refusing to be generous, it’s that you’re an exceptionally good steward! Like the ant in Aesop’s fable, you are carefully filling your storehouse so that you can survive the winter. When the rest of us grasshoppers are starving, it’ll be your turn to shine.
See how that works? Reframing is a powerful thing. You think that Egypt is a place in which we are enslaved, but I think that Egypt is a rather nice resort town! The weather is hot, but comfortably dry. Accommodations are free, and there are always activities. Slavery? Pshaw. We’ve got it good.
Or how about this? You have to stop reopening that argument. You know it. You said it was forgiven, and it needs to be left in the past.
But you’re not really dragging it out as much as you used to, though! You’re slowing down. Incremental progress is really the best way to build a strong foundation. You can’t just be bottling things up inside, right? It’s not that you’re fighting unfairly; it’s that you’re processing honestly. It’s not like you don’t plan to leave Egypt eventually… just not quite yet. It would lack integrity to do otherwise.
Maybe Egypt isn’t such a bad place to be. It just needs a little work, that’s all.
In the face of our wrangling over words, God refuses to call the problem for anything other than what it is. Slavery is slavery. Freedom is at the end of the journey we’re about to start.
So, get up. This is the beginning of the new year. We’re going to be on our way.
This Passover meal is all about transitions. The lambs are slaughtered at twilight- in the Hebrew, that translates more literally as “between the evenings.” between that which would distinguish yesterday from tomorrow. To emphasize this, the lamb’s blood is spread over the doorframes- doors being the dividing point between in and out, between here and gone.
Having set the stage for changes, the metaphorical weight moves to speed. Don’t bother to let the bread rise; just bake it without yeast. Eat your roasted lamb and flatbread and bitter herbs standing at the table with your boots and coat on and your car keys in your hand. There is no time to be wasted.
And when you’re done eating, burn your leftovers. We won’t be having dinner here tomorrow. Set the leftovers of the meal on fire, and see in those flames your commitment to moving on towards freedom.
From the perspective of those eating the Passover meal, this freedom is unimaginable. I don’t mean that it wasn’t desired, but do you think they could have imagined themselves out in the desert, worshipping freely, receiving their commandments not from other people but directly from God?
Do you think they could have imagined the five wild daughters of Zelophehad – Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah – telling Moses to tell God that he got those commandments wrong? Do you think they could have imagined God Almighty agreeing and changing the law?
What would you say, if I told you that this is exactly what the church is supposed to be doing?
You’ve heard it said, I’m sure, that where two or three are gathered together in the name of Christ, the Spirit is present with them. That one verse is the basis of so many sermons on why you ought to show up for church, all of which are true, by the way. Worshiping God in community is inherently different from worshiping God alone in the forest. It’s not that you can’t find God that under a tree, but if you can sink your roots down next to some friends, the experience is much deeper.
The passage from Matthew 18 that gets quoted, though, is saying a lot more than that. Here it is, a little more broadly:
Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.
This is what freedom from slavery looks like. Whatever we bind, will be bound. Whatever we loose, will be loosed. If we agree, then it’s done. If we’ve gathered in the name of Christ – and not just in name only – then the decisions are up to us.
What do we do with that kind of freedom?
I’ll tell you what we do: we go back to the rules. We go back to Egypt. We go back through the blood-smeared doorposts and scrape the charred leftovers out of the fireplace where we burned them, and tomorrow, we start making bricks.
The other option is just too much to contemplate.
Because here’s the thing: if the ropes are in our hands, how are we supposed to know what to do? You let go of one, and you hold on to the other, and who’s to say it was the right choice? Who’s to say that you know anything better than the millennia of other people who have examined the same ropes?
But look, it isn’t just you. It’s we. This makes it an inherently conservative process. Everybody has to be on board with exercising our freedom to make a change – which suits Quakers well, since our discernment processes are always collective. Come to Meeting for Business this morning, if you’d like to see that in action. We’re in this together.
The power of binding and loosing means, though, that we have to discern what we will take with us on this journey out of slavery.
Having mentioned slavery so many times, look at it like this: the New Testament is clear, in at least three places, that slaves should obey their masters. (What would Moses say to that?!) I know we like to make this distinction between the scary and fear-filled faith of the Old Testament, in which ethically objectionable things were the norm, and the loving and kind faith of the New Testament. Not only is this rather unkind to any Jewish friends you might have, it’s also just plain wrong.
The New Testament letters are not squirrelly on the topic of slavery. They are straightforward. Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.
And yet here we are as a meeting, providing you with the opportunity to buy Fair Trade coffee because we think that slavery is unequivocally a Bad Thing. How do we make sense of that?
Well, we bound slavery. We decided that Saint Paul’s advice to slaves and masters wasn’t good enough. We listened to the Gospel, and we looked at our world, and we decided that slavery was not allowed.
Christians who experienced slavery spoke honestly about their misery, Christians with power listened to those stories, and we all heard the voice of freedom calling. We revised our understanding of the commandment you shall not steal to include stealing labor from other human beings.
I don’t think that was a step toward Egypt. I think it was a step toward the Promised Land. Rejecting slavery, though, is not in “literal” accordance with the Bible.
And look: I preach from this pulpit almost every Sunday. Some Christians take affront to that- women aren’t supposed to be this noisy in church, aren’t supposed to be teaching mixed-gender groups, and so on. I’m sure those are all nice people. I could sit down with them at Jen’s and argue point by point through Paul’s letters. It could make for an interesting conversation.
Here’s the thing, though, as far as Quakers go: we loosed women. Say what you want about Saint Paul; Quakers gathered together in the name of Christ and said we need women’s voices. Christ is speaking through women, and we need to listen. Quakers (and others, of course) set women free.
Listen: Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. That doesn’t mean that if you say Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz that a new car is going to magically appear on your driveway. Sorry to let you down about that. It means something much bigger.
It means that we’re no longer in Egypt. It means that the leftovers are torched and the doors are bloody and we’re moving on. Get your sandals on. Tuck your cloak into your belt, or whatever it is that you do when you’re ready to walk out of your house into the unknown.
This is what it means to be the church, Friends. God trusts us. Burn your leftovers, because we’re on the move. The ropes are in our hands.
The only law that matters, from here on out, is the law of love. Look, you’ve heard the rules. “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal.” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be.
What we know in Christ, though, is that whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. That doesn’t mean that you can cheat, lie, and steal so long as you “feel” like you’re loving someone. It’s stricter than that, and it’s more freeing than that. Love is a high and beautiful standard.
There is a great hypothetical situation about this, in the book of James. Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food, James postulates. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
Where in the law does it say that we shouldn’t say kind things to each other? Where in the law does it say that if we find someone without clothes and daily food, we have to give him or her our own?
It doesn’t, at least not exactly. Love your neighbor as yourself, though. Think it through. What does that require of you? Think it through carefully, because faith not accompanied by action is dead faith. We can do better than that.
This may not be New Year’s, on our calendars, but anytime can mark new life for us. How do we choose what to bind and what to loose, in this new life? We follow the law of love. Outside of Egypt, we bind and loose by the law of love. Love is the fulfillment of the law. Be in service to love, and everything else will fall into place.
So. What are the leftovers that you need to burn? What should you set free, and what should you tie up and leave behind? What is the law of love requiring of you?