Reaching for Freedom

Reaching for Freedom
By Rev. Ellen Quaadgras
Westminster Unitarian Church
March 26, 2018

First Reading: By Rev. Kathleen McTigue

Each of us knows a little about what it means to be lost in the wilderness. We know the awful disappointment, akin to despair, of being suddenly pathless and alone when we’d expected to stride confidently straight into the promised land. We know how it feels to take a leap of faith toward some place we want to be–in love or relationship, in work or school or location–only to find that nothing turns out the way we’d hoped and expected. The familiar has been left behind, but what we yearn for has not yet come into view, and there we are, lost in the desert…”

Second reading: By Rev. Lynn Ungar
They thought they were safe
that spring night; when they daubed
the doorways with sacrificial blood.
To be sure, the angel of death
passed them over, but for what?
Forty years in the desert
without a home, without a bed,
following new laws to an unknown land.
Easier to have died in Egypt or stayed there a slave, pretending
there was safety in the old familiar.

But the promise, from those first
naked days outside the garden,
is that there is no safety,
only the terrible blessing
of the journey. You were born
through a doorway marked in blood.
We are, all of us, passed over,
Brushed in the night by terrible wings.

Ask that fierce presence,
whose imagination you hold.
God did not promise that we shall live,
but that we might, at last, glimpse the stars,
brilliant in the desert sky.



We sometimes think of ourselves on a path, a straight path or a meandering path, but nevertheless a path that goes from point a to point b, one that leads somewhere, hopefully somewhere better than where we are today.

But real life, we know, is not always such a straight shot. Less 50 yard dash, more merry-go-round. Less upward and onward forever and more seasons and cycles, up times and down times. Facing the same lessons over and over again. Forming new answers. Each time deeper, wider, or just different. Year by year, generation by generation, again and again.

We stand on the shoulders of the generations who have gone before us. Who have learned lessons and asked questions in their day. Who don’t have pre-made answers but stories that encourage us to explore our questions: How then shall we find our freedom? How then shall we escape from the darkness of our prisons and glimpse the stars under a brilliant desert sky?

And, will we end up somewhere better than we are today?

Passover is an invitation from those who came before to enter into a timeless story, to imagine ourselves in it, as though we are, ourselves, in bondage, as though we are seeking freedom, as though we are wandering in the desert, lost, uncertain, and a maybe little hard-headed.

And, for the courageous among us, perhaps we can look for ourselves also in the story of the Pharaoh, too, the repressor of freedom, the oppressor of others.

We are invited to bring our questions and place ourselves in the story.

And it’s quite a story.

It’s been called one of the great journey stories of all time.

I invite us to picture ourselves there, an Isrealite held, as a slave, in Egypt. Subject to backbreaking labor, compelled to build roads, towns and cities for Pharaoh, the ruler of their day…

It went on like that, day after day after day. 430 years. No glimmer of light, no hope of change. Nothing but drudgery and subjugation on the horizon.

Until, somehow, one day, God calls on a man named Moses, a chosen one, appears to him in a burning bush, calls on him to lead his people, help them, save them, free them… He sends Moses to Pharaoh with a message: Let my people go.

Pharaoh, predictably, refuses, in spite of Moses’ dire warnings of trouble.

And, trouble comes. Right? 10 different plagues rain down on the people of Egypt. The waters of the river Nile are turned to blood. Then there’s the plague of the frogs, then lice, then wild animals invade the cities. Next, livestock come down with a mysterious deadly illness and the Egyptians themselves contract a terrible skin disease, before fire and ice pour down from the sky in a devastating, destructive, hail.

The people of Egypt beg their Pharaoh to make it stop, to let the Isrealites go, to end their suffering, but Pharaoh remains hard-hearted.

So the devastation grinds on: Locusts infest crops, destroying remaining food, and a thick, palpable, darkness covers the land. Finally, the hardest, harshest plague of all, the angel of death takes the firstborn livestock and firstborn child of every Egyptian family. Only the houses of Jewish families that had followed special instructions were “passed over” that night.

In what we can only imagine is tortured state of seeing “no way out”, Pharaoh… finally, finally relents.

He lets their people go.

The Israelites are told to depart quickly. Packing just a few belongings, not waiting even for the bread to rise, they must make haste, under cover of darkness, and leave, before it’s too late. Moses, his brother, and over 600,000 men plus women and children and livestock and whatever possessions they could gather rush out into the night, making their way to Canaan, to the promised land, making their way back home.

It was barely days before Pharaoh, in what we can imagine is some fit of rageful remorse, changes his mind and rushes out in hot pursuit. Chariots, horses, captains, footsoldiers and priests marched after the Israelites, quickly catching up to the beleaguered runaways, who were, surely, terrified and helpless, stuck at the shores of the red sea.

When the big miracles happens.

Moses lifts his staff, the waves part and the Israelites cross. When the Egyptians rush in after them, the waters come back together, drowning them all.


A young boy coming home from Sunday school one day summarizes it all for his mom.

“It was amazing,” he told her “Moses was this big guy, played football in college. Well, he tackled the Pharaoh and knocked him down. While the Pharaoh was getting up, Moses quickly gathered the Israelites together and they all ran toward the river. As soon as they got there Moses had his Corps of Engineers throw up a pontoon bridge. Then when they got across and while the Egyptians were on the bridge, Moses called in air support and they blew the whole thing up.”

There was a bit of silence before his mother cleared her throat and asked him, “That’s what your Sunday school teachers taught you?”
“Not really,” he replied, “But if I told you the story the way they did, you’d never believe it.”
It is quite a story.

And it’s a story, whether believable or not, whether true or not, that offers truth in the myth as they say, offers perspectives, ways to think about things, for the lessons we humans seem to have need to keep learning again and again.

In her commentary on this greatest of escape stories, Avivah Zornberg , scholar of Torah and rabbinic literature, lifts up some of the most compelling and surprising insights from this ancient tale, insights that might center us in our journeys.

Like Moses, for example. Such an interesting pick as liberator of his people. He’s kind of a headstrong foot-dragger. He doesn’t at first seem all that interested in freeing his people, and, initially refuses to do it altogether. The Moses in the Bible, isn’t actually all that much like impressive towering bearded figure from that movie, the 10 commandments, who was strong and clear and powerful. The Moses we meet in the Bible is full of doubt, hesitation and downright stubbornness. Not only does he refuse God’s first request to be the savior of his people, but he doubts just about everything that God has to say to him.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a lot of trouble identifying with this guy.

I can’t do it, he says to the God of the burning bush. I can’t do it, I’m not smart enough and can’t speak well. They won’t listen to me, your plan has issues, it won’t work out. Send someone if you want, as long as it’s not me.

The chutzpah.

It’s fascinating to me not only that a character in the bible would talk to God like that, but even more, that God takes it.

Sort of.

I mean, God does get mad, but somehow seems to empathize with Moses anyway, and actually helps him. Recognizes his human needs and fears and says, basically. Okay fine. Your brother can come with you. You don’t have to do it alone.

So Moses and his brother Aaron go off to talk to Pharaoh. The very first ministry team.

I don’t mind identifying w Moses because his story doesn’t end with stubborn foot dragging. Somehow, somewhere, he gets it. He learns, he can do this, he has the help he needs and that what he’s doing matters. He be*comes* that hero that we imagine he always was. I can’t help but think – once he became willing to start, something, in his journey, changed him.


Then at the other end of the story, there’s Pharaoh, the villain, the antagonist to Moses’ protagonist. Pharaoh is cruel, self-centered, controlling and unjust.

But the thing that strikes me most about him is this whole business of the hardening of his heart.

We hear, as the plagues come, one after the other, that he hardens his heart, stiffens it, is how some translations put it.

He cuts himself off and he doesn’t have to feel.

Then, notably, after the 6th plague, it is suddenly God, not Pharaoh himself, who hardens Pharaoh’s heart. As though it’s no longer his own choice, as though, God suddenly took over.

But it creates a puzzle when you think about the theology, the logic and the lessons behind these kinds of stories. Why would God do this? Why would God appear to take charge of someone’s heart, “Making” them do bad things? It flies in the face of Jewish and Christian understandings of human autonomy and free will.

Jewish midrash (Jewish commentary) offers an interesting though troubling interpretation – that the God language is really a figure of speech – that it really is us. That we can make ourselves so cut off, so hardened, so unhearing that it becomes automatic – as though God has done it. That, while we have choice, for a while, but can lose it, and become unreachable, if we stay hard for too long. It’s a sobering reminder. How can we keep our hearts open, while there’s still time?

But an even more interesting substory in the drama of the Pharaoh is what happens in the very last moment for him. He’s let their people go, he’s freed them from slavery. Trauma over, drama over. No more hail and pestilence and untimely death. Relative peace. Finally. Jewish commentary notes that even though letting them go surely must have been “the most sane decision of Pharaoh’s life, a few days later he decides it was completely irrational.”

Why did he change his mind?

“Midrash puts it very provocatively,” Zornberg notes, “and says something like this, that Pharaoh feels that as long as he had the Israelites in his power and God was sending him messages — an interesting euphemism for the plagues — that somehow he had some kind of very dramatic, intense relationship with God. He had a feeling that God needed him, that he was important. But now that the people are gone and life has gone back to normal, the sense of drama has gone and life is actually quite boring. […] There is a sense that Pharaoh has strangely enjoyed being in the [middle] of that [intense, dramatic, even deadly] storm.”

A phenomenon we see sometimes in world leaders.

But it’s also a phenomenon, if we pay close attention, we might see in ourselves. How we regular folks can get stuck in turmoil so we don’t have to tolerate the tedium of everyday life – we can be drawn to negative drama – it’s oddly enticing, until it drowns us. Pharoah’s inability to tolerate a lesson in loss, a lesson in humility, ultimately destroys him. Zornberg says he’s almost in a trance. Addictions of all kinds work like this. Addiction to substances, gambling, drugs, drama, netflix…

So I ask myself, how does this apply to me? Where am I in a trance? What am I addicted to? Where could I use a lesson in humility?

And then there’s the people. We have Moses the leader, then, Pharaoh, the bad guy, and then there are the people, the followers, who spend 40 years wandering in the desert. Who are beset with angst, irritation and mistrust. Who follow their leader, sort of, but mostly spend a lot of time complaining and doubting him and the God who got them into this mess. Or at least, that’s how it looks to them now. A big, unfavorable, unpleasant mess. They’ve forgotten the great escape, forgotten the miracle of new life that was given to them, forgotten that their God is on their side. Instead they complain about the food, their fears, the unknown. They want to turn back. Being slaves in Egypt is better than this, they said. Even being trapped, subjugated, lost and helpless, even that was better than this.

It has been measured, that the journey from Egypt to Canaan, to the promised land is, even on foot, even with 600,000 men and women and children and livestock that the trip should take about 80 days. Maybe 70, maybe 100. But the people in this epic saga spend 40 years wandering in that desert wilderness. 40 years.

In one explanation for this, I read; it’s because God got mad, God saw that the people were ungrateful and is punishing them with this near-endless trek in the dry, dusty, desert wilderness.

In another explanation for this, I read, it’s because God was wise, knew the people needed a wilderness journey, and is helping them; knew the people needed to get out of familiar routines and deal with unpleasantness in order to learn to work and live together in new ways.

Either way, it’s ironic that when the people complained that their time in the desert was too hard, they got a whole lot more of it.

I will say, I like that second explanation a lot better than the first. That they got more time because they needed more time. Their complaining wasn’t a transgression to be punished, but a symptom of a need, They weren’t yet ready to arrive. Their complaining about discomfort was, ironically, a sign that they needed to stay in the discomfort, until they could fashion, out of their struggles, a new relationship with their reality, with God, and with each other.


I don’t have a lot of trouble identifying with Moses, the stubborn footdragger.

And I can identify with pharaoh, and this risk of hardening my heart or getting addicted to negative drama, falling into trances, needing lessons in humility.

And I can identify with the people – those headstrong people who get annoyed and irritated, and need to wander, and eventually learn to trust themselves, trust each other, and trust, that if they listen to the voice of conscience, to the voice of love, to a voice which some call God, that they will be led.

And that perhaps not in spite of, but because of, their struggles, their experience of the place they are going, might just be better than where they are today.

Forty years in the desert
Easier to have died in Egypt 
or stayed there a slave, pretending
there was safety in the old familiar.

there is no safety,
only the terrible blessing
of the journey.

God did not promise that we shall live,
but that we might, at last, glimpse the stars,
brilliant in the desert sky.