To Spring, to Leap, to Jump Over Lightly

This morning Reverend Furrer will preach about Passover. Passover begins on Friday evening, April 19 at dusk and continues for eight days; it’s one of Judaism’s major holidays and it’s probably the origin of Christianity’s Last Supper. What does it teach Unitarian Universalists today?

“The Spring, To Leap, To Jump Over Lightly”

This morning I want to talk about Passover. Passover begins this Friday evening at dusk and continues for eight days; it’s one of Judaism’s major holidays and it’s probably the origin of Christianity’s Last Supper.

Over the years my predecessors here at ESUC have organized and led for many a Seder meal here at the church. All our ministers have.

            Passover story: the myth

            Seder: the ritual   

            Myth tells the story / Ritual acts out the myth

Now the Passover story goes like this:        

  • Jews lived in slavery in Egypt
  • Moses led them out of Egypt through the Red Sea and to Israel

What actually happened: [Norman Gottwald thesis]    

  • 3300 years ago in the Fertile Crescent à

Egypt ruled the Land of Canaan more or less as a colony. Political turmoil led to a situation in which the slave caste slowly organized themselves—over the following 200 years—until they ran the show; they established a new political kingdom. What was especially impressive about this was that their “state” was based on a new way of organizing: YHEH (the Collective Spirit of the People) was to be in charge, no Pharaoh. This was a radically democratic way to organize politically at the time—and to this day.

So you have this situation developing where the Egyptian Empire in Canaan that had been running the show were—over the course of a couple of hundred years—pushed out. EGYPT, it turns out, is more a frame of mind than a place. Indeed the word “Egypt,” in Hebrew, means “the narrow place.” Which is a perfect description of the culture there before the Jews took control of their fate by joining together and daring to live radically as one community bound together…

Bound together by a shared Spirit (YHEH / Spirit of LIFE).

Bound together by a Covenant (OT history recounts the evolution of that covenant).

And bound together by stories (Passover story associated with the Exodus) and their associated rituals (Seder): [Rabbi Jerome Molino: “You UU are a lot like Jews, but we have rituals.”]

            Moses is an example of the Hero Archetype:

escapes detection, brought up in palace

            Years later: as a shepherd à he’s spoken to by YHEH à

“Let my people go!” [Why Me? Who shall I say sent me?]

            Talks to Pharaoh à Ignored

            10 plagues à 10th = death of the first-born

                        (humans & cattle)

            Moses tells all his fellow slaves about the imminent death of the first-born and how to avoid it: Ex 12:1-28.  Then after death affects every household in Egypt Pharaoh tells Moses & his brother Aaron to leave immediately: They do. That’s the Passover story.

The Exodus story came to be associated with Passover, but the origin of Passover is actually much older. Indeed, the name Passover comes from the Hebrew verb pasah, to skip or pass over, so named because of the tradition that the “destroyer” passed over the houses marked with the blood of the paschal lamb when so many others were smote. Pastoral in origin, etymologists believe that the festival may actually be named for the skipping of lambs that—as we’ve all seen—frisk, bounce, and gambol about. It’s joyful and delightful just watching baby animals. Lambs and baby goats, or “kids,” are the specific animals designated by Hebraic law for sacrifice in connection with the ancient pastoral celebration.

The verb “to skip” has many meanings: to pass along with light, springing movements; sometimes to ricochet, as a missile passing with rebounds along a surface, as in “skipping stones.”  Or to pass from one point or thing to another with disregard or omission of what intervenes. Or to leave hastily; to flee. All these meanings are tied up in the Exodus story. Who among us has not, at one point or other in their lives, gamboled freely and with great joy? Who hasn’t skipped out…in the nick of time, or maybe, or, regretfully, to the dismay of someone who was counting on you to hang in there?  Who hasn’t prayed that they be skipped over: for a tongue-lashing? For a tough assignment? Or for a dangerous tour of duty? “Please, Mr. Custer, I don’t wanna go!”

The Exodus story is a story about all of these things but especially about praying to be passed over: and having your prayers answered. Try not to get hung up on the literal dimensions of the myth if you want to understand it. This is true of all mythology. These are metaphors. Our spiritual forebears were originally slaves, i.e., they were unfree. Then they adopted a Covenant. Then they started holding themselves accountable to it: Then: what do you know? They started to thrive. They made it through the turbulent, life-threatening waters of the Red Sea (i.e., metaphorically they made it through a period of fear and uncertainty and onto dry ground. It took them awhile—40 years in the wilderness followed by fits and starts for hundreds of years more —but eventually they learned how to live as free people.

Genesis, Exodus… these are foundational stories: Myths of Origin. The Passover/Exodus myth in its simplest terms, it seems to me, comes down to this: our freedom derives from our willingness to bind ourselves together in covenant. Let me say that again: our freedom derives from our willingness to bind ourselves in covenant. Free religion is not a free for all. It’s disciplined and demanding: it asks of us everything, just as Alla Renee Bozarth, echoes:

  • Pack nothing. Bring only your determination to serve and your willingness to be free…
    • Do not hesitate to leave your old ways behind—fear, silence, submission…
    • Sing songs as you go…
    • Remain true to the mystery…
    • Pass on the story…
    • Do not go back….

Over the millennia since the Passover festival first started to evolve it has continued to change… to embellish… to transform.  As Judaism evolved from a family to a tribal to a national religion—and beyond—the prayer that its adherents be passed over when it comes to unbearable heartache, that prayer has been repeated millions of times. And will be again this coming week across Judaism the world over.   

This morning we gather to affirm the heart of Passover: that liberation is costly because living by a covenant is difficult and demanding. But difficult as living by a covenant may be, living without one leads to inevitably to discord and distraction and to loss of vision.

Making church thrive is more fun than that; sometimes it’s almost like skipping, lighting prancing about: being festive and playful (as baby lambs and kids are). But at other times sticking with our covenant—being peaceful, truthful, trying to be helpful—toward everybody—at times, adhering to such a covenant can test a body to their absolute limit!

For Unitarian Universalists, covenant is our spiritual practice: it’s how liberal, non-orthodox, agnostic-leaning religionists such as ourselves can grow in community and spirit. The concept of covenant has grown over the centuries: what was for Abraham and Sarah a covenant between their family and its daemon grew into a larger and larger circle encircling, over the centuries, more and more of humanity.

Let us resolve this day to follow our forebears’ noble, costly example: to choose freedom. To chose binding ourselves to one another (and in covenant with me, temporarily, but within five years or so with a new minister) all in hopeful expectation of growing our souls and strengthening our community.  To choose (as it is written in thirtieth chapter of Deuteronomy) …to choose LIFE, so that your descendants, and this wonderful community may live.

So May It Be. Amen. And shalom.