Rev. George Miller
Sept 27, 2015
“Once we were slaves in Egypt.”
This simple statement is the very basis of Judaism and the truth that thrusts forward the Biblical narrative.
“Once we were slaves in Egypt.”
This quote begins the celebration of Passover, in which people gather around a table and remember what God has done.
“Once we were slaves…”
For the Jewish community, what binds them together is this shared memory, this claim that each and every one of them had come from a place of bondage and struggle.
“Once we were…”
The redemption from their past means they are now free to serve God instead of Pharaoh ; they are free to live as if heaven is at hand as opposed to the ways of the world.
The Jews are a people of memory. This memory is what all else is based around.
Genesis is the prequel that lets us know how this came to be. Exodus tells us what God Almighty did about it. The rest of the Old Testament tells what happened afterwards.
This collective memory, this statement that “Once we were slaves” is not meant to hold the people down. It’s not meant to keep them in victim mentality. It’s not meant to makes excuses for their behavior.
This shared narrative is to remind them of the humble beginnings from which they came; to ground them when they got too big for their britches and to encourage them when their britches are taken away.
This simple 6-word statement reminds everyone who claims to be a child of God that once they were foreigners, once they were used, abused and taken advantage of, and once they seemed to be forsaken.
The testimony that Exodus tells us is that when God went about selecting the “Chosen People” it was not the monarchy in their palaces, it was not the judicial system sitting behind benches, nor it was the CEOs of the Fortune 500, but it was the lowest ones on the ladder, making less than minimum wage, doing the grunt work…
…Not that there is any shame to being an important leader or government official.
Not that there is any shame in being part of law enforcement and public safety, or being financially successful and running your own company.
It’s all in how you act, how you behave, how well you remember, and hold onto to that memory:
That once you were enslaved; once you had nothing, once you struggled; once you were despised.
What do you do with those memories of who you, your people, and your ancestors were?
Do you use those memories to do justice, love kindness and to walk humbly with the Lord?
Or do you convincingly forget? Distance yourself? Burn bridges or kick down the ladder so no one else can climb up?
Do you erase any trace of your memories, therefore having no reason to show concern for the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the hated, excluded, and the defamed?
“Once we were slaves in Egypt” is the foundation that Judaism is based upon, and today we just heard a sermon given by Jesus, a Jewish man who was a rabbi.
We know him as the Messiah, come to set all people free.
Jesus was also a prophet, speaking judgment to those who had grown too big for their britches, and hope for those who can barely afford britches to outgrow.
According to the way Luke tells the story, Jesus is preaching to a large, diverse crowd, made up of folk who’ve come from all four directions; from religious leaders to the newly called disciples, from those with lots of cash to those who can’t afford their daily bread.
At this part of Luke’s narrative, Jesus is personable and realistic. He doesn’t address the crowd in 3rd person, but as “you.”
Jesus is smart and well spoken, and clearly he knows he’s speaking to a crowd in which there are rich and poor folk, those who are happy and those who are sad, those who are oppressed and those who are the oppressor.
It’s a speech that if Jesus was running for President, he’d immediately get supporters and immediately get detractors.
Folk would either love him or they’d want his named stripped from the ballet.
“Blessed are you who are poor/Woe to you who are rich.”
“Blessed are you who use the Shepherd’s Pantry/Woe to you who pig out at Homer’s.”
“Blessed are you who are dissed for being different/Woe to you who are part of the popular crowd.”
Based on these talking points, would Jesus get your vote or not?
So what do we do with this sermon of Jesus? Truth be told, none of us here are what any one in a 3rd World Country would call poor.
But put us next to a Wolf on Wall Street and we may not see ourselves as being rich either.
But the truth is this:
-if you woke up today
-if you had a choice to eat breakfast or not
-if you had a closet full of clothes to choose from
-if you came to church in a car and not by foot or by bus
-if you’re physically well enough to sit through an entire service
-if you have at least $1 to put in the offering plate
You are already better off than about 1/3 of the world. Which means that yes, we are fortunate.
But does that mean we should feel shame because we can eat, because we can laugh, because we are welcome here?
Does that mean each and every one of us should be prepared for the woes that are soon to happen, according to the words of Luke 6?
I cannot give an answer, nor is it my place to judge. What I can do is to share.
Last week I talked about an experience in which it felt like time had collapsed, and my past, present and future were all existing at once.
That’s a bit of how I view this difficult passage.
Currently, I continue the process of purchasing my first home. That would indicate I have some form of wealth.
But I still remember: that once I lived in a studio apartment with no working shower and I had to heat bath water on the stove.
Once I was on Food Stamps and went weekly to the food pantry.
Once I dealt with flea infested rats that ate through the walls of where I lived.
So I had my share of woes and I’m ready for my blessings, yet this whole home buying process is nothing but a series of blessings and woes at the same time.
I’m blessed that I’m qualified to buy; I’m woed that there’s repairs that need to be done.
I’m blessed that my mortgage will be about half of what I pay in rent. I’m woed that I’ve already had to lay out $760 for inspections, appraisals and service calls and I haven’t even moved in yet.
I’m blessed that my home will be walking distance to the Theater, library and Circle and closer to Emmanuel. I’m woed that I’ll no longer have a porch or a view of the lake.
I feel great woe that my Dad is not alive to help me. I’m blessed to see just how many people I’ve been able to call upon to assist.
Blessings and woes, all at the same time.
What would Jesus say to me, where I am, at this point of my life? Would he speak a word of blessing; would he speak a word of woe?
What would Jesus say to you? Would he speak words of hope or words of judgment?
I think that Jesus is talking in extremes to get a response and to have us think. He’s talking in a way so that anyone could identify with half of what he’s saying at any time.
Jesus is speaking in open-ended examples that allow each of us to think for ourselves: that is me today; that was me yesterday; that’s where I may be tomorrow.
I also think Jesus is going back to his roots, to his very Jewishness, which is rooted in the reminder “Once we were slaves in Egypt.”
I believe that Jesus is calling each of us to remember that whatever we were tied to, whatever was holding us back, God has set us free.
And if we’re not free yet, God can do it.
I believe Jesus is using his provocative sermon to help people think about where they are in life.
If things are not so good, to know that the Kingdom of God is real, and one is truly not forsaken nor alone.
If things are good, to recall where one has come from and that in one’s happiness we are free to do our part to make the Kingdom of God a bit more real.
Is it possible that we can be rich, we can be full, we can laugh, we can be liked, and we can empower the poor, we can feed the hungry, we can console the weeping, and we can advocate for the hated and despised?
I believe the answer is “yes”, as long as we realize and remember all that God has done, all God is doing and all that God will do.
If we find our own way to do these things, we will have honored the two greatest commandments: love God and love your neighbor as yourself.
If our actions, our words, our faith shows that we remember, that we recall, that we believe, we will have indeed done justice, loved kindness and walked humbly with the Lord.
After all –isn’t that just what God wants and has always wanted from us?
Amen and amen.