Gaining Freedom – A Sermon for Passover
By Rev. Ellen Quaadgras
Westminster Unitarian Church
April 19, 2017
When the escape from Egypt was certain, when the last furious wave had closed over their enemies’ heads and the dangerous waters lay smooth again, when the Israelites could finally turn toward the future without fear that the past would snatch them back–what did they see before them? Not the Promised Land, flowing with milk and honey, but the wide and terrifying wilderness that would claim them for forty long, hard years of wandering. They were not carried along on a surge of vindicated faith, but stumbled forward with paralyzing doubts. And instead of enjoying sweet unity after all they’d been through, they were torn by bickering and division. They walked into relentless uncertainty and discomfort, and fell asleep on the hard ground to wake feeling ashamed for dreaming of the easier life of slavery they had left behind. Kathleen McTigue
“I call that mind free which guards its intellectual rights and powers, which
▪ does not content itself with a passive or hereditary faith,
▪ opens itself to receive new truth as an angel from heaven,
▪ is not the creature of accidental impulse,
▪ does not cower to human opinion,
▪ which resists the bondage of habit,
▪ sets no bounds to its love,
▪ delights in virtue and sympathizes with suffering,
▪ casts out all fear save that of wrongdoing.”
William Ellery Channing
What are the lessons we can learn from the Passover story, told again and again, by generation after generation, for millenia?
What can we glean from the life, personal trials, and insights of Moses, one of the most well-known prophets in the Judeo-Christian tradition?
What are we to make of the story of the Jewish people, led from slavery only to find themselves wandering in the desert, lost, disgruntled and unhappy, for 40 long, difficult, years?
While we, as UU’s, are neither Jewish, nor Christian as a whole, we do honor the teachings of these traditions, and seek wisdom in the ancient stories.
There is this idea of the “truth in the myth” – not the truth of actual events but the truth of the echoing lessons that spoke to people thousands of years ago and can still speak to us now.
And that truth, for this holiday, and for our time, is the story, of how to become free.
Something that can seem, at first, unnecessary. We are, afterall, already free. We live in a free country. We can say what we want, buy what we want (well, for the most part), we’re free to go just about anywhere we please.
And there are important ways that those who came before us set things up so that we do have a great deal of freedom and what a blessing that is.
But freedom is not a simple yes or no question – we can be free on the outside but constricted inside. There are so many ways our lives get narrow. Maybe for you it’s restrictive health challenges, or maybe it’s financial – there’s not enough to go around. Or, we tie ourselves up, thru alcohol or some other addiction, through overspending or underspending, through overfocusing on status or power or through an endless stream of mindless activities… Or maybe we put too much weight on what others think, or we put too much weight on what we think, or we act out on impulse or we don’t act at all. There are so many ways we limit ourselves and our capacity to enjoy or participate fully in life.
Psychologist Eric Fromm wrote a book in 1941 about our tendency to want to “escape from freedom.” How the responsibility that comes with freedom can be so uncomfortable we want to escape it; we allow ourselves to be enslaved by something or someone who tells us what to think or say, by things that distracts us, by anything that gives us comfort, or a feeling of security.
It’s these tendencies, this internal struggle, that explains why the journey to real, growing, evolving freedom, is not just one, as the book explains, of “freedom from” external restrictions or coercion, but just as importantly a journey of “freedom to” – freedom to act creatively and courageously in the becoming of our authentic selves. To become more and more the kind of person who reflects our second reading, someone who’s not content with hand-me-down knowledge, whose mind is open, who is not driven by others’ opinions, who is not slave to habit or impulse, and who can genuinely, compassionately, love.
This is a journey, that, in mythic story after mythic story, requires facing external, worldly challenges, sometimes harrowing ones… it’s a journey that requires transformative inner moments, of opening eyes, waking up to life as it is, rather than how we might wish it were. And it is a journey through which, if we bring our courage and our faith, we might come out the other side a changed person, or a changed community, or we may even, be part of creating an unexpectedly changed world.
Joseph Campbell calls the journey to this kind of authentic life the hero’s journey. The journey from the protected, dependent child we’ve been toward the interdependent, brave, compassionate, self-actualized person any one of us can become.
The Passover story is one such hero’s journey. A story of challenge and difficulty and trials, external & internal, along the journey to freedom, a story in which we are invited to participate, once a year, and this year, here, on April 11th . All are invited to sit down to the Seder meal and re-live one particularly rich chapter of that historic drama. To imagine ourselves in it, and walk through the journey of the Israelites as a way of casting light on our own, yet-unrecognized captivity. And, in walking ourselves through it, that we may gain insight in how we can grow up and grow wise, in our journey to be free.
While the Seder Haggadah, the storybook used for the passover meal, often begins with Moses going to the Pharoah to demand that his people be set free, the story actually begins well before that, and today I want to take us all the way back to the birth of Moses.
Moses was born a slave, and into immediate danger. The Hebrews, his people, were living in Egypt, in a time of tension and fear. Egyptians were feeling threatened by the growing numbers of Hebrews they’d enslaved and Pharoah ordered the killing of all newborn baby boys. Moses, though, was saved; hidden in a basket on the Nile, fished out of the river by the Pharoah’s own daughter, and raised, in the royal palace, as an Egyptian, by her.
Grown, over time, into a man of wealth and power, we do not know when Moses realizes that he is actually a Hebrew, only that one day, something, some still small voice perhaps, prompts him to leave the comfortable palace where he has lived his whole life, and go out to visit with his people. While doing so he encounters an Egyptian mistreating a Hebrew slave, and in what we might imagine as a fit of rage against this injustice, Moses kills the man.
Soon found out, he is forced to flee into the wilderness, where he becomes a shepherd, finds a wife, raises a family and lives in the desert for 40 years.
Until, one day, after all those many long years, he encounters that iconic burning bush.
And has a gut-wrenching, soul-searching, life-changing conversation with God. That went something like this God to Moses: “Will you talk to Pharoah?” God asks. Morse to God: “Uh, you talking to me???” Moses does not appear thrilled to learn the specifics of whatever God might be about to ask him to do. “Yes, I’m talking to you,” God responds, and explains the mission, even demonstrating the magical powers he will give to Moses if he does it. Morse, Unconvinced, unenthusiastic and averse, laments that he is not a good speaker. God, without skipping a beat, assures Moses that he will help him speak. Which is when Moses rounds out his litany of protestations: I don’t want to, I can’t, please don’t make me, send someone else.
Okay that’s not word for word from the bible, but you get the gist. Moses didn’t wanna, and God really did. Want him to. And wasn’t going to take no for an answer. God is like that sometimes, in that ancient Big Book.
Still, I can’t help but relate to this reluctant Moses in his conversation with a God who is throwing down the greatest challenge of Moses’ already long life and one of the greatest of all time. God is, afterall, asking Moses to go on back to the place where he is wanted for murder. He is afterall asking him to go talk to a group of people who’ve never heard of him and tell them what to do, and then go on up to talk with one of the cruelest rulers ever and, you know, just ask for a little favor, like, letting half a million captive people walk away scot-free.
*I* get uneasy just at the thought of asking neighbor to turn down loud music.
But this is Moses & this is God and God says, you will, and I’ll even send your brother Aaron along with you, he can do the talking, and off they go.
One thing that strikes me about this conversation, aside from Moses’ chutzpah in talking back to God, is the name God uses for God-self when Moses asks who he is: “I am who I am” is the response, or also, more accurately translated as “I am what I am becoming” Or, I am evolving, I am growing. This, voice of God, is one that leads Moses from where he is, to who he might become, toward what his people might become. This God is a verb and, when following this voice, everything could be changed.
And this to me, is a central crux of the whole exodus story – it’s about becoming, growing, growing up, facing reality, listening to that still quiet voice, the one that prompted Moses to leave the comfort of those royal grounds the first time, face the reality of the bondage of people he did not, at first, understand were his brothers, and ultimately listen to that loud booming voice calling him to do something about it and free them all.
You probably know the next part of the story. Moses demands, Pharoah denies, Moses demands again, Pharoah denies and becomes more cruel, and God steps in. There is water turned to blood, frogs, lice, flies, disease, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and, most devastating of all, there is death. In a horrible echo of what nearly happened to Moses, all the firstborn sons of the Egyptians are killed, while all the children of the Jewish homes that performed the proscribed ritual are passed over.
Pharoah releases them. They go. Pharoah changes his mind and follows.. the Israelites and Pharoah’s army meet in their approach to the Red Sea.
And you definitely know the rest of this. Walls of water, a clear narrow, harrowing passage for Moses and his people, and a watery end to the pursuing Egyptian army.
The moment of release and of freedom, of retribution and redress. The Israelites finally win. They made it.
Recall our first reading:
When the escape from Egypt was certain, when the last furious wave had closed over their enemies’ heads, […] what did they see before them? Not the Promised Land, flowing with milk and honey, but the wide and terrifying wilderness that would claim them for forty long, hard years of wandering. They were not carried along on a surge of vindicated faith, but stumbled forward with paralyzing doubts. And instead of enjoying sweet unity after all they’d been through, they were torn by bickering and division.
Some have said that the 40 years that Moses spent in the desert shepherding sheep before he found the burning bush was his time to learn patience and trust . And he was surely put through his paces in securing the release of his people. Now, he would get to lead his people in walking through theirs.
Because those next 40 were hard, frustrating, and difficult. With all their newfound freedom, the people began losing themselves. There were years of waywardness, of being tested, of failing those tests and painfully finding their way back. They were long, hard years.
Ultimately they did reach their destination.
The conclusion of this same piece by Kathleen McTigue goes like this:
“After [those] forty years in the desert, the Israelites in the ancient myth finally reached [their destination]. They touched life-giving waters again, and waded into the Jordan, amazed and glad.
[and] Maybe they knew, even in that moment of deep relief […], that the desert wasn’t accidental, that it had opened and cleansed them in some necessary way. Maybe they understood how the wilderness had sharpened their awareness and softened their hearts, so they could at long last receive, not just the gifts of the promised land, but the gifts of the desert that had brought them there.”
What is your hero’s journey? What still small voice, or loud booming voice may be calling you out of the comforts that bind you [to find the brothers that still wait for you]?
What desert wilderness must you walk through to be sharpened and softened?
What do you need freedom from – and, just importantly, what are you called to do with the freedom that you have?
As we reflect on our captivity, whatever form it takes, as we look to growing freedom, whatever journey we must endure, may we trust the voice of greater wisdom, of greater love, that calls us on, and when we look around at the changes that we are helping to create, may we be amazed, and glad.
May it be so. Amen.