As Bob Hope famously quipped, “Welcome to the Academy Awards, or as it’s known at my house, Passover.”
What, you may ask, does Passover have to do with Christians?
I start with a plain, simple claim: We need a Passover. There are a lot of places – physical, emotional, spiritual, political, economically – that we need to leave. God told Abram, “Leave your country and your relatives and go to the land that I will show you.” Jesus left his home town because of their unbelief. Jesus says, “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.” We need to disengage from some of the practices of this world that have invaded the church to such an extent there might as well be statues to idols in our sanctuary. May God help us rediscover that we are not citizens of this world but sojourners, aliens, and immigrants looking for a better city.
Remember the television drama, “Gunsmoke”? My dad watched Matt Dillon every day for more than forty years. Well, Matt would tell outlaws to get the hell out of Dodge. It became part of the language of teenagers in the 1960’s and 1970’s. It meant to leave the place. I believe that Passover stands for places the children of God need to leave.
My friend, Rabbi David Sofian says of Passover: “In Judaism, Passover, originally a spring festival, became a celebration of the exodus from Egypt. Being connected to a holy land is not enough. At least of equal importance is being connected to a holy history.”
A holy history. That is a key phrase. Last week, a friend of mine died. He was a historian. His name was Jacob Dorn. He graduated with his Ph.D. from the University of Oregon, wrote a biography of Washington Gladden, one of the founding fathers of the social gospel, and he taught history at Wright State University in Dayton from 1967 to 2015. I dedicate this sermon to Jake, a man who knew that history is not just a subject in the curriculum but what makes us human because it is the collection of our stories. So, Passover is holy history and it is part of our holy history.
There are two strong reasons for me stressing “holy history.” One, so many people no longer have any sense of what it means to be a “holy people.” They think it is a bunch of beliefs or they think it’s a list of bad stuff they we don’t do. Or they think it’s standing up against those thought to be evil. But holiness is a series of practices that have to do with setting people free from slavery to all sorts of diabolical masters. Holiness is about hospitality – making a space for the least of these, the holy trio of Scripture: widows, orphans, and the poor.
Other folks think that history is ancient tales that no longer matter. There is no such thing as ancient history. As William Faulkner, son of the South, put it, “The past is never dead. It is not even past.” The Passover ritual, indeed all our liturgical acts are relevant to the present, to our needs, our current needs. Last week, one of my Facebook friends attempted to write off our history of slavery, discrimination, and oppression of African Americans, Native Americans, and women by insisting that all that was ancient history. That is a misguided and dangerous idea. The American philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
My friend’s remark about history betrays a weakness in American thought – a people who feel and act as if the world started only with them and that what they want, think, need, and desire is all that matters. A lack of a historical consciousness is nothing less than blasphemy because it means we have forgotten God. Maybe all those statues of the sons of rebellion, the traitors to the Union would have epistemic and salvific value if looking on them we remembered our sins and repented of our wickedness but the language flying around about the statues sounds more like worship of idols than repentance for our “manifold wickedness.” After all, God once had Moses make a bronze serpent and have the people to look on it in order to save them from death by snake. Look, to be called by God is serious business. To be God’s people is a life-and-death matter, and that makes Passover even more important for us. “The story of Israel is the story of her training to become a people whose survival depends on learning to trust God in a snake-infested world” (Stanley Hauerwas). We are a people lost in the wilderness if we don’t have a “holy history.”
Starting with a belief that God acts in history Judaism sees its own history as intimately connected to God. This is at the heart of the Israelite covenantal idea. The point of being God’s people is that this people actually experiences God in its own unfolding story. Jews experience God in their midst in their historical narrative. Passover is holy history. Repeatable holy history.
God’s instruction about how to eat Passover looks like the invention of fast food. I bet McDonald’s would like to have an annual feast day that requires all of us to grab a #1 – Big Mac, fries, coke, supersized, to go. God gives Israel eating instructions because food is always a matter of spiritual experience. “You should be dressed, with your sandals on your feet and your walking stick in your hand. You should eat the meal in a hurry.”
The people who gave written form to the Hebrew Bible, put their history into their liturgy. This is one of the reasons that I worry about us because Baptists don’t have a liturgical book to tell our story. We have always been allergic to Prayer Books. I want you to pause and think about this for a moment. The reason we keep coming by here is to make sure God is still on the premises and to make sure we don’t forget who we are and what we are supposed to be doing. Passover is history enacted liturgically.
From the outset, being God’s people means being ready to go at a moment’s notice. It’s like being on call, or being a company of Marines always ready for the next mission. No wonder Jesus keeps telling us to be prepared, to watch, and be ready to go. Perhaps recalling Passover, Jesus says, “3Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. 4Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.” We are a people sent out into the world, but we have become a people who show up on Sunday for church.
Let’s try to wrap our minds around God having this one place for us to leave. Peter Marty reminds us that Louis Pasteur, the brilliant French microbiologist, once conducted a classroom experiment to demonstrate how animals adapt to dangerous conditions. He placed a bird in a closed container for six hours. The bird grew sluggish and inactive as the air quality diminished, but it did not die. When Pasteur introduced a second bird of the same species into the polluted container, this new bird died immediately. The sudden immersion in toxic air was a shock it could not survive. Peter W. Marty @PeterMarty
Peter W. Marty is publisher of the Century and senior pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Davenport, Iowa.
Like the first bird, we have gradually acclimated ourselves to the culture of money, the idolatry of money. Our commitment to greed has only gradually become toxic. We are so severely accommodated to our culture we are incapable of seeing our own complicity in greed.
Passover offers us freedom from the Market God, the Money God, the all-powerful driver of all that matters in America. In the Passover, there’s the seed of God’s economic salvation for all. Let me read it to you one more time in case you missed it: Each household is to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. In other words, everyone gets a piece of lamb. No one goes hungry. Do you see that in the end all that counts is the human infrastructure? Not economic growth, not better buildings, not higher profits, not accumulated wealth, but an infrastructure that delivers food, shelter, and clothing to all in fair ways. The God of the Bible so wants human community to work right here. This is not socialism or liberalism. This is humanism; this is being a good neighbor. Last week, I said that if the gospel is not social it is not a gospel. Now, I say unto you, that if the gospel is not economic it is not a gospel.
We have to leave the Market God. We can’t seem to grasp that poverty is one of the results of capitalism. Of course, capitalism is the best economic system in the world, but it is flawed. I am not attempting to undo capitalism, I’m trying to just get you to admit that it is not perfect. Capitalism was conceived by the Almighty Market God, born of the Virgin Money, prospered in the US of A, was stricken with sickness in the 30’s, but raised from the dead, and has come again in all its former glory to make us richer and richer and richer. When we are convinced that capitalism can do no wrong, we have made a grave theological mistake. Look, we believe that all have sinned, that our institutions are operated by sinners, but yet we act as if there is absolutely no evil or wickedness in our greed-infested economic system that sometimes lies, cheats, and steals in the name of the bottom line. Do we have the courage to put on our sandals, grab the walking stick, get a lamb wrap, and hit the road to economic justice? Have we the integrity to throw a rope around the statues to the Money God and topple them like Saddam Hussein or Robert Lee?
Americans have forgotten that a city depends upon a neighbor covenant, a social contract, that we are bound together in a common destiny. We need a Passover. The things that matter can’t be privatized. The corporations can’t save us, not even Amazon’s proposed new headquarters with 50,000 jobs for a lucky city. The corporations can’t save us. Corporations will leave you for a bigger tax break. They will go to Ireland or Outer Siberia to make a few extra bucks. They will even sneak out of town by night. Isaiah says, “Is not this the fast that I choose? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” (58:6-7).
The images of a people geared to go, a people on the move, a people ready to serve are vivid and lasting: Sandals, walking stick, and a lamb chop. In the New Testament, the loving Father commanded servants to get the ring, the robe, the shoes, and the fatted calf for the prodigal son so that he could once again take on the responsibility of being a faithful son. Then in the Last Supper, Jesus gave us bread and wine.
So what do you say? Are we ready for a Passover experience? Are we ready to hear and heed the Word of God about economic justice? Are we prepared to throw off the shackles of slavery to the Market God and its greed? Are we going to enact economic justice for the poor in our public, national economic policies? I can see it coming. A Passover for America. A holy meal, a holy history, a people of justice and righteousness.
America! America! God shed his grace on thee, and crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.
America! America! May God thy gold refine, till all success be nobleness, and ev’ry gain divine.
America! America! God mend thine ev’ry flaw, confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.