Sermon: The Promise
Copyright: Sarah K. Person
Delivered: Easter Sunday, April 20th 2014 to the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Middleboro
Last Tuesday, I had the great privilege of joining Janice and David at the Oak Point Seder. Almost a hundred voices, some younger than mine and some from people almost a hundred years old, recited stories and blessings from a ritual that is almost two thousand years old and a feast that is even older than that. I let their voices wash over me as I marveled at their strength. It was a kind of affirmation. We are still here, still celebrating with others, they said, even after all that has happened to us and all the years.
The week of Passover, the week of Easter, is a week full of traditions for me and mine. We have our family Seder, at our house or at a cousin’s house; and then more Seders during the week. I have to say I look forward to it every year. This is one of the bonuses of growing up and living in an interfaith family. In the same week, I’d have family Seders and Easter egg hunts. Lots of matzoh ball soup and lots of chocolate! (And a lot of egg salad sandwiches the week after.) And I understood even as a child that this week was in truth the point where my interfaith heritage truly mixed. Jesus’s last supper was a similar to our Passover Seder. He probably ate the same lamb and bitter herbs and wine and matzoh that I ate. Some of you, and a lot of Christians I meet, are surprised that Jesus was Jewish.
This is like the feast that Jesus celebrated, the last night before he was taken into custody. After all the stories were told and the songs sung and the blessings recited, they would have begun to eat. And then, the story tells us, Jesus – this wild and compassionate visionary – did something out of the ordinary.
While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of the hard bread, and blessed it again, possibly saying:
Ba-ruch a-tah A-do-nai, E-lo-hey-nu Me-lech ha-o-lam, Ha-motzi le-chem min ha-a-retz.
Praised are you, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who brings bread from out of the earth.
Ba-ruch a-tah A-do-nai, E-lo-hey-nu Me-lech ha-o-lam, A-sher ki-d’-sha-nu b’-mitz-vo-tav,
v’-tzi-va-nu Al a-chilat ma-tzah.
Praised are you, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who makes us holy through Your commandments, and commands us to eat Matzah.
He then broke it, gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body.’
Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks:
Baruch attah Adonai, eloheynu melech ha-olam, boray p’ri ha-gafen.
Blessed are You, our God, King of the Universe, Who creates the fruit of the vine, …
he gave the cup to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the Kingdom of God.’ Within hours, we are told, he was captured and then executed by the Romans.
As I grew up I started paying attention to things other than food. I started paying attention to the messages of the Seder, and the Easter story of the last supper and the crucifixion and the empty tomb. I realized that, while I didn’t believe everything in the Bible as historic fact, I believed at least two things probably happened: that after generations of slavery, the Hebrews left Egypt under what had to be extraordinary circumstances. I also believed that, after a remarkable life and a painful and heartbreaking death and burial, the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth was found to be empty. Although my beliefs have been in a steady process of evolving since then, I have never lost the sense that this week was meant to get us through tough times. This week is a week of celebrating the meaning that Jews and Christians made of this; the good news that we were delivered from evil.
This is a season of deliverance and resilience. In spite of everything going on around us today in our lives, in spite of all the hard things we have to deal with, the message from these holy days is that we can be confident and joyful in the core of our being because long ago these things happened. An entire nation was delivered from slavery, and a tomb could not hold the physical remains of the amazing man who had been placed there. There are miracles that attend these stories: the miracles of the plagues and the parting of the Sea of Reeds, the miracle of Jesus’s revealed presence to his followers after he had died. The miracles lent power and grace to the message. This good news enabled Jews and Christians to hold on to their conviction long past the events themselves. We can get to a place of joy and resilience because once we were delivered from evil.
This season is the hardest for me to wrap my head around even though my heart understands a lot. The reason has to do with my father. He passed away many years ago, before I was married and had children of my own. But he had an influence on my life that lingers on. If I had to capture the essence of his fathering, I’d have to say he was often mysterious and volatile and loving from a distance. Like the God of his fathers. He didn’t talk about himself very much. A lot of us are like that, or had fathers like him, men who were part of the Greatest Generation.
I found out after years of wondering why he was the way he was that he had lost a beloved younger sister. She contracted lupus when she was just a teenager, seventeen years old, and died ten years later. Most people nowadays who come down with this illness have it for years and live long and productive lives. But back in the 1930s and 40s it was a different story. Toward the end of her life, my dad joined the army because our country was in a terrible war. Although he didn’t end up fighting overseas, he found out that appalling things had happened to the Jewish people living in Europe. The war ended, and my aunt died in the same year. My dad never talked about his sister and never talked about the war, so I am guessing a lot when I say that I think losing her and learning what happened in Europe changed him forever.
For some people, grief turns into something silent and untouchable. It’s like the stone bed of a river that never budges no matter what currents of life are flowing over it. My father did not want to pass his Judaism down to us. Bad things could happen and would happen to anyone he loved. He didn’t want to believe, didn’t want to hear any promises, didn’t want to place his trust in anything that assured him there was nothing to despair of, nothing to fear. Oh, he had a great love for music and the New York Giants and us, and a great capacity for delight – especially for jazz or a touchdown pass by Y.A. Tittle – but he didn’t trust happiness. Joining a Humanist Unitarian congregation was a chance for him to gather with like-minded people on an intellectual level. There were no promises in that place, but there was company for the journey of life.
When I minister in this season, I am ministering to him – the way I remember him – and it is hard. I have his image squarely in the forefront of my mind while I reconcile myself all over again to these stories, these holy days of deliverance. They are part of me, the lexicon of my emerging faith. But I also have my memories of him inside as well, and there are times when I know he wanted to stay in that dark cavern of the spirit. And, my friends, I did not want to leave him there. I had enough resilience for both of us.
You see, these stories have something to give to us, even now after all this time. We are not perfect, we are reminded of our frailties. We are reminded we carry our bondage with us. Our stories this week are stories of faithlessness, betrayal, fear, and abandonment. They are stories of survival in spite of ourselves, of courage in the face of death, of faith out of grief, of unimaginable loss transformed into hope.
Passover asks us:
to celebrate together rather than apart,
to welcome the stranger,
to resist oppression wherever and whenever we find it,
to not simply be consumers of the truth, but to be servants of the truth.
to remember our covenant with God, this God that could wreak such havoc,
to be thankful that in this instance we were spared, that we were delivered, and that we must hold onto that memory to get us through the times when we are not spared. No matter what happens, we can celebrate that we were, that we are, and will be in the end, cherished.
Easter asks of us:
to do what is right and necessary
to heal the world and make it new, even though we might not be there to see it happen.
to let ourselves be transformed by healing,
and to remember that,
no matter what our circumstances – no matter what happens –
even if Jesus should have to leave us behind, and we forsake him,
if our loved ones leave us, or we leave them,
That is not the end of all that is good in life.
Faith does not promise us a life without fear or grief. Faith promises us that there is more to life. There is a reason to make something good happen inside you and around you. So, father mine, life is laughing a welcome, come out and listen.