Ritual, Memory and Meaning

Exodus 12:1-14

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.

 I spend most of my time these days preaching pulpit supply, meeting with Sessions and consulting with congregations.  And here is a thing I’ve noticed.

Every congregation has its own rituals that become so familiar we barely notice them, but if they are somehow messed with or left out, watch out!

You know what I’m talking about when I say, “ritual.”  The flowers in a particular vase in a particular place. The church supper which features a particular food like ham balls, a tradition one congregation described to me a few weeks ago.  The way we serve communion, and the kind of bread and juice we serve. The pew where so and so always sits, which is often the same pew their parents or grandparents always sat.  The hymns we sing on Christmas Eve. Are you a congregation that ends with “Silent Night?” Or are you a “Joy to the World” kind of group? Particular scripture texts we count on hearing, like Psalm 23 at a funeral or 1 Corinthians 13 at a wedding.

Just the word itself –“ritual” – seems to carry a negative meaning for modern folk like us. A ritual is often something that we thoughtlessly do at a certain time, in a certain way.  There are some rituals we have been doing for so long that nobody can really remember why we decided to do it in the first place.  It’s like that great line in “Fiddler on the Roof,” in which Tevye says, “You ask me how this tradition got started.  I’ll tell you.  I don’t know.  But, it’s a tradition!”

Someone once said that we stubbornly hold on to various traditions and rituals at certain times of the church year because if we didn’t, the absence of such sacred cows would annoy the old folks and confuse the children.  And it’s true.

And, let’s be honest here, there are rituals and traditions that do seem pointless after a while, although we hate to admit it.  Many a congregation has been hobbled by that old chestnut, “But, that’s the way we’ve always done it,” which is usually said after someone has pointed out that some long-held tradition has crossed the line from faithful observance to mere habit.

Some people avoid church entirely because all they can see when they enter our sanctuaries are lifeless rituals tightly held by lifeless people who are just going through the motions.  And if those people are correct, if we really are just going through the motions in worship or in our life together as a congregation, if it really is just habit, we should think about that. If we can’t explain why we do something, maybe it is time to put that sacred cow to rest, even if we risk annoying the old folks and confusing the children.

This morning’s text is the story of how a ritual was given to the Israelites.

The passage from Exodus this morning comes right after the ninth plague against Pharaoh – the plague of darkness – and before the tenth, most terrible plague – the death of the first-born children in Egypt.

This passage narrates an interruption in the battle of YHWH versus Pharaoh, a pause in the action, a moment in which YHWH not only gives instructions on what the Israelites are to do as they prepare to leave Egypt, but also sets forth very detailed instructions of what every generation is to observe in the future.

It seems like an odd place for all of these rules and regulations to appear, but God insists upon setting forth a ritual, the Passover festival, what the text calls a “perpetual ordinance.”  Perpetual.  Something that every generation will be required to do forever.  And ever.  And ever.

But it must seem to Moses and Aaron that God is jumping the gun a little here, as the Israelites haven’t even begun their journey, and God is worrying about the menu for a party generations from now?

And furthermore, Moses and Aaron suddenly have a major logistical problem.  Scholars tell us that there were probably around 20-40,000 Israelites living in Egypt at this time.  That’s a lot of people who need to get the lamb recipe. In fact, that’s a lot of lambs being slaughtered at the same time.

Why all the attention to detail? Why does God stick Moses with the nightmare of organizing thousands of people to go through such fastidious food preparation, just as they are about to be released, finally, from slavery?

Why doesn’t God just tell the Israelites to pack up their stuff, put a sign on their door that says, “Angel of death not welcome here,” and get going before all hell breaks loose?

It’s like those warnings we’ve been hearing over these past weeks for people fleeing from a hurricane. The wind is increasing steadily and is about to blow at 200 miles per hour, and the storm surge is just about to sweep away everything that isn’t nailed down. The National Hurricane Center says all your preparations should be “rushed to completion.”

Now imagine — just as you’re about to hit the highway to escape the winds and the flood, the voice of God says – hold up! Wait a minute!  Go back inside and cook up a lamb so you’ll never forget that you were saved from total destruction!

I live in a neighborhood that’s primarily Jewish, and every year I am amazed by the preparations that Jewish families go through in the days leading up to Passover.  The care some of my Jewish neighbors take in vacuuming and cleaning for hours to rid their homes of every small crumb of leavened bread.  The back-straining labor of packing away all the every-day dishes and cooking utensils, carrying them up to the attic, then carrying down all the Passover boxes.  The last-minute preparation of food before sundown on the first night.

Some of my less orthodox Jewish friends are more informal in their preparations.  Instead of having a separate set of Passover dishes, they’ll use paper plates and plastic cups, and at some point in the 7-day observance at least a couple friends will fall off the wagon and give in to a craving for something other than a steady diet of matzo.

My husband tells the story of sitting at the Passover table as a child while his great-grandfather would move slowly through all of the Seder rituals – the reading of the Haggadah, the bitter herbs, the salt water, the lamb shank and the hardboiled egg followed, finally, by dinner.  The rituals seemed meaningless to a little boy with a growling stomach listening to an old man drone on in Yiddish for hours.1930sArnold Eagle

At some point all of us, Jewish and Christian and even people of no faith at all, look at our sacred traditions and rituals and wonder, “This is so much work. Why do we keep doing this? Why does this matter?”

But somehow the crucial message of Passover, even if it’s delivered over paper plates and plastic silverware, is conveyed again and again, through generations of families.  Children continue to get impatient, and pages of the Haggadah are skipped.  But the message endures and has endured.

This story is important. This story matters.

This text in Exodus reminds that sometimes rituals are life-giving for a reason that has little to do with the kind of lamb or the tidiness of our homes.  The Passover ritual has everything to do with what those rituals are pointing toward — God’s saving actions in the past, and God’s redemptive purposes for the future.

Life is about to change for the Israelites at this point in Exodus. The slaves of Pharaoh are about to undergo transformation.  And the transformation isn’t going to happen in a day or a week or even a year.  It’s gonna take some time.

The former slaves of Egypt will become a wandering band of nomads in the middle of nowhere.  There will be many days to come in the next 40 years in which the Israelites will find themselves starving, dehydrated, fighting with Moses, fighting with each other, lost beyond their capacity to reason, and just about ready to turn back to Egypt.  There will be mumbling and grumbling about the quality of the food, the lack of water, the heat, the journey, and the delay in getting to the promised land.  Even when the Israelites get to the Promised Land and begin to prosper as a people, they will forget again and again who they are, and turn away from YHWH.

Yet, it is through rituals like the Passover that they will be able to remember who they are – God’s people – and fed again for the journey by grace.  And they will be again reminded of the deepest truth of their faith.  That God is not just the creator of the world or the sustainer of all creation, but the “Lord your God who brought you out of the Land of Egypt to be your God” (Numbers 15:41).

The ritual of Passover, relentlessly practiced by every generation, will remind them of the truth. This is who you are. This is WHY you are. When everything else is moving fast and falling apart and looking grim. When the wind is in your face and the waters are rising.

This ritual will bring God’s people back to center and restore balance to the universe.

There was another Passover meal, many years later, when Jesus sat with his friends and recalled again the saving hand of God for God’s people.   Jesus sat at the table, drinking wine, talking with his disciples, knowing it was almost time for him to leave them in the flesh, and exist with them in a new way.  The winds of treachery were blowing. The floods of destruction and death were rising all around them. Jesus had warned his disciples the storm was coming. As they sat and laughed and drank their wine and ate their supper, Jesus knew the time has come to rush preparations to completion.

Jesus knew that the people he was leaving behind, and all the generations to come, would have moments when they would forget who they are, and whose hand had delivered them.  Jesus knows we are a hungry, thirsty people with terrible memories who need rituals — to see and touch and taste, so we can remember the story of God’s grace that feeds us, loves us, and saves us again and again.

So Jesus gave his disciples a ritual that would remind his people of their identity.  A ritual that we call a sacrament, that has the power to shape the lives of God’s people.  It is a ritual that matters not because of the kind of bread we use, or the kind of juice we serve, or whether we eat standing up or sitting down, or in the front of the church or in our individual pews.  The meaning of this meal is much larger than the details or the ritual. Calvin called the Lord’s Supper, “a recollection of past deliverance and nourishment for future redemption.”

We do not do the ritual because God demands it.  We remember Jesus and the meal he shared because it gives us life. It brings us back to the center and restores order to our lives.

The Lord’s Supper is a gift to us, that slows us down to remind us that we live by possibilities that are not our own.  And all of those possibilities begin and end with the one who set free our Israelite ancestors, and continues to give us freedom in Jesus Christ.  The God of Israel who is still the same God for us today.

The journey for the Israelites at this point in Exodus has only just begun.  They do not know what lays ahead for them.  All they possess is the hope that the place they are going to is better than the cruel and colorless life they have been living.

Even today, there are pharaohs that are still with us, enslaving us – to anxiety, to mistrust of one another, to fear of the future, to regret about our past. We are slaves to a culture that considers us consumers and producers, and would have us measure who we are by what we own or what we owe. Everywhere you look, there are pharaohs who want us to believe we are something other than the beloved child of a loving God.

And even in our churches, in this time of anxiety and transition, we wonder what will survive and if we will survive. Like the slaves leaving Egypt, we wonder where we are going.  Like people seeing a hurricane on the horizon, we feel the pressure to rush our preparations to completion and decide what we will take with us and what we will leave behind.  What will we miss? What will give us life? What really matters?

These are the urgent questions of our time, no less urgent than they were for our Israelite ancestors.

So we must tell each other the story, again and again.  We must tell the story which moves us beyond ritual to the only truth that matters. We must tell the story to reclaim the center of our life as God’s people.

Our story

is not blood on our doorposts.

Our story is not the stained glass windows

Or the hymnals

or the ham balls

or our places in the pews.

Our story is the Gospel we proclaim,

Our story is the waters of Baptism that claim us,

Our story is the body and blood of Jesus that redeems us,

Our story is not a dusty ritual in a dark building

But the in-breaking word of new life that proclaims,

“You are free!”

It’s up to us to live as if we believe that word of freedom.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.