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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Life in the Wilderness: Signed in Blood

Pentecost 12A 2011
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.

Lillian Daniel, a United Church of Christ pastor, recently wrote:
On airplanes, I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is "spiritual but not religious." Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo. 

Next thing you know, he's telling me that he finds God in the sunsets. These people always find God in the sunsets.  And in walks on the beach.  Sometimes I think these people never leave the beach or the mountains, what with all the communing with God they do on hilltops, hiking trails and . . . did I mention the beach at sunset yet? 
Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn't interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself. 

Thank you for sharing, spiritual but not religious sunset person . . .  Can I switch seats now and sit next to someone who has been shaped by a mighty cloud of witnesses instead? Can I spend my time talking to someone brave enough to encounter God in a real human community?  Because when this flight gets choppy, that's who I want by my side, holding my hand, saying a prayer and simply putting up with me, just like we try to do in church. [1]
This fall – except next Sunday, when the Bishop preaches, and I have no clue what she’s going to preach about – we’re going to look at the story of the Exodus of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, through the Wilderness, and into the Promised Land.  While these are the appointed readings for this fall in the Revised Common Lectionary, I thought they were particularly appropriate as sermon material, because it seems to me that we are people caught between a familiar past and an uncertain future, following a dream but not sure where we’re going or if we’ll ever get there.  In so many ways, doesn’t it feel as though we’re wandering in our own Wilderness, especially this last week as the winds howled, the trees fell, our modern conveniences became useless, and we had no clue when rescue would ever come?
Hebrew faith really begins here with this story of the first Passover – an act of ritual observance that comes before the miracle, not as a memorial invented afterwards.  Passover is the central act of Hebrew worship:  the family gathers, clothed for a quick getaway, to eat a meal of a freshly killed lamb whose blood has been smeared on the outside doorframe of the house.  That night, as God passes through the land, God will spare the life of the firstborn child in houses marked with blood.  In all other homes – especially those of the Egyptians, even Pharaoh’s palace, there will be death.
Not exactly “spiritual, but not religious,” is it?  This is no walk on the beach, no apprehension of the beauty of Creation when the sun is on the horizon.  This is hard-edged stuff:  butcher a lamb, smear the blood, get ready to run, because people are going to die where there has been no sacrifice.
As we approach the tenth anniversary of 9/11, I’ve been thinking a lot about sacrifice.  The whole world was moved by the extraordinary sacrifice of the police and firefighters and other first responders in New York City and Washington, by the sacrifice of the passengers on Flight 93 who prevented that plane from being crashed into whatever its target was, and, of course, the sacrifice of the men and women who went to the Middle East to fight terrorism.  Next Sunday, I want us to spend some significant prayer time remembering those people.  But I’ve also been thinking about the sacrifices that weren’t made – how we embarked upon two wars without paying for them; how we were not asked to make sacrifices in our lifestyles or in our finances as Americans were in the first and second World Wars.  Now we are bearing the cost, with interest, of having avoided sacrifice when it was most needed.
One of the seven great evils in the world, said the Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi, is worship without sacrifice:  the essence of being “spiritual but not religious.”  Right from the start, the Bible requires sacrifice:  Adam and Eve are asked to sacrifice their wills for the sake of obedience; Abram sacrifices his home and security to follow God’s call; Moses forgoes a safe life herding sheep to confront the greatest king on earth; and in this morning’s lesson, the path to freedom begins with the death of a choice lamb, with the abandonment of all that is familiar, and with the sacrifice of personal choice to the call for radical obedience.  The Bible records the death of Pharaoh’s son and the death of thousands of Egyptian children, but surely there were Hebrew households that night who, “spiritual but not religious,” communing with God in the sunset over the Pyramids, elected to not sacrifice their best lamb, not ruin their doorposts, not leave their new granite countertops or plasma high-definition widescreen hieroglyphic tablets behind.  Odds are, there were dead Hebrew children that awful night too, because their parents did not want to sacrifice.
Blood, in the Bible, is the sacred sign of life.  But the blood on the Passover doorposts is a sign of life sacrificed.  Salvation from slavery and death only comes where people have followed God’s commandment to sacrifice.  It’s the same story in the New Testament:  Jesus’ shed blood on the cross does nothing to save us from our slaveries and our deaths if we do not follow his commandment to take up our own crosses, sacrifice our wills and commitments and priorities and our very lives to God.  Jesus dies for us so we can die for him.  Salvation is signed in blood – Jesus’, and ours.
Isn’t that why we find the stories about 9/11 so compelling?  Something in us is drawn, like a moth to a flame, to those stories about people giving their lives to save the lives of others.  That something is the deeply buried image of God, calling us to the life-giving blood-sign on the doorpost, on the cross, in charred wreckage in New York and Washington and a field in Pennsylvania, in Flanders’ Field and Normandy and Kandahar and Baghdad. 
There is no salvation where there is no flesh and blood – in being “spiritual without religious.”  This is hard, bloody work, that requires life and death and sacrifice, not happy thoughts and pretty pictures. Because when this flight gets choppy, that's who I want by my side, holding my hand, saying a prayer and simply putting up with me, just like we try to do in church.

[1] religious

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