This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, on 4/24/16. This Passover sermon looks at the part of the story where the Israelites are traveling through the Desert, after being brought out of slavery. What is the role of trust and faith in times of adversity?
It’s good to be back and able to walk around a bit again after a much longer recovery, than my doctor expected, from dual foot surgery. Many thanks to all of you who offered to help, who checked in on me, and who kept me in your thoughts and prayers, and for those who sent lovely cards to my home. What was supposed to be a 3-5 day recovery looks like it’s going to take 3-5 weeks. One specialist jokingly referred to one of my toes as the 1 billion dollar toe for all the lab work that was done to diagnose it. The funny part, is that all the tests were wrong. But thankfully now, I’m on the way to a slow recovery. Please bare with me as I sit through this sermon. Although I can walk, standing for 20 minutes is still difficult.
This is only the second time in my life where I’ve had to be off my feet. This Memorial Day will be the 7 year anniversary of the time I was hit by a car as a pedestrian. In some ways, this time around is worse than even being hit by a car. But I’m grateful for communities of support and trust, as I’m grateful for modern medicine. I know right now that there are many of us who are going through various stages of recovery and surgery; and even more of us who have lived through that in the past. For myself, and maybe this is true for you too, I find these times of adversity and healing to be life-defining – at least as a sort of lens in which we see the world for a time – and maybe that lens never really goes away.
After my first major injury 7 years ago, I kept some of the perspective I gained from it with me. You become more aware of how inaccessible many places in our world are. You become more patient for people who are unable to move quickly. Maybe you learn to move with a little more intention, or maybe attention. I think this time around, I’m learning a bit more about how shared our world and our responsibilities are. Life is often a team sport. Sometimes we like to pretend it’s a solo competition, and that we are competing all on our own singular merits, but I think we’re kidding ourselves when pretend that’s true. In that spirit, a special thanks to Ken Buley-Neumar and Starr Austin for making the past two Sunday’s go so smoothly in my absence.
We’re going into our third night of Passover today, and with all the past few weeks in mind, I can’t help but think about what it must have been like for the People of Israel to wander in the desert for 40 years. After slavery, after struggle, after plagues and famines, and lamb’s blood on mantles, the Jewish people are freed from bondage only to lose heart when they finally come upon the land God promises them. They lose faith that God will deliver, and they cease to believe they can oust the current residents of the land of Canaan. So God curses them to wander the desert for 40 years until the last of the generation that had the crisis of faith die out.
It’s a rough story, and what seems to be an extreme punishment against a people who have been down and out in the worst ways possible – enslaved. It’s natural to want to be critical of God for this curse. But I also think it’s very real. It’s true to life and to most of our stories at one point or another in our days on this earth. We’ve all been there. We each go through impossible travails – some that would make Soap Opera’s blanch for their audacity, but they happen nonetheless to most of us at some point, or even many points, in our lives. For half my recovery, my husband had to be in New Orleans for a Cancer conference for work, only to return home with a 103.5 fever. I’m barely able to walk to care for him, and I wanted to find the proverbial lamb’s blood and ward our doorways from the angel of death – Please No More! But these times in our lives happen – we struggle – we typically get through them as best as anyone ever can. And like the story of Exodus goes, we forget that we were delivered from something horrible, and we can lose faith that we’ll be delivered from the next and possibly the next.
When we were cursed with wandering in the desert for 40 years, it was a curse that made real what we thought would happen because of our lack of faith. You’ll hear me often make a distinction between faith and belief. Belief is a creed or an opinion that we follow. They can proven or disproven. Faith is an orientation toward life – mixed with hope and possibility and choice. Do we enter into the Passover story, painting blood on our mantles to give a sign to the Angel of Death to pass over our homes – the very visible sign of our faith in the power of the angel, and the trust in the promise of Moses? Or do we come to the promised land and have our way barred for our lack of trust in being provided for? We certainly do both at different times in our lives, but holding onto faith is as much a choice we make as holding onto despair in the face of travail. We have to do one. Why so often do we choose the harsher road? Often, when we choose the harsher road, we do so too alone. We give up trust in being provided for, and we cut ties with the communities that would sustain us.
Adversity can lead to hardship and despair, or it can lead to a new creation. We’re closing our month wondering what it mean to be a people of creation. Where we may not have the choice to wish away adversity, we do have the choice to make something new from it. As I reflect on the meaning of Passover at a time when I’m tentatively starting to walk again, I’m reminded of the words of the beloved popular theologian, Prince, may he rest in peace, when he said, “Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.” The words are even more poignant with his passing, and so many of his lyrics seem to pop out of the albums and speak to many of us who are mourning his tragic death at the young age of 57. But that phrase is a theological as it is cultural. We are gathered here… To get through. We do this together; we rely on one another; we ease each other’s struggle. We do that best, when we start from a place of trust – and rally against the urge to distrust or assume the worst – in each other or what’s before us. Trust. One of the oldest stories in scripture shows the power of trust, and what’s at stake when we abandon it. We delay the promised land; we forestall a new creation; without trust we wander in the desert till a new generation can find faith in one another, faith in God, faith in life once more – faith enough to live fully again. The story of exodus tells us that God curses the people for their lack of faith after being delivered so far; but I think we curse ourselves again and again for the same reason.
In our story earlier we learned more about the time after the people of Israel had escaped slavery, but before they had yet found a new place to settle down. This is the time before that curse is laid upon then. They’re on their way to the Promised Land, and recently escaped from Pharaoh. Moses directs, “Don’t save anything; only take enough for today and use it all up; you will be provided for again in the morning. Trust the one who has made this covenant with you.” Daily living in the curriculum for God’s message of trust. All will be provided for, so don’t squander it and don’t horde it. Use what will be revealed before you. It will be enough, regardless of how rough the road ahead is – it will be enough.
Accepting that what we need will ultimately be provided as we need it, is an act of faith. One that scripture tells us is true. Do we believe that? Or if we do believe it, do we still feel that way all the time? We may still have to do the work of gathering, and preparing and cooking, but Scripture tells us the food will come. I want to say that that doesn’t always feel true for everyone. Hunger and poverty are all too common in the world. But yet, this story stays real across the millennia and speaks to community after community that have found deliverance from slavery and subjugation. And maybe as importantly – it offers a proscription. Don’t save anything, only take enough for today.” It’s an edict from God laid down to prove a point, and to teach a people to trust in God. That’s the primary reason for the edict. But it’s also an ethical teaching. It’s as if God is saying, “as you prepare to build a new creation, of a new people in a new land, do so without hoarding.” Greed, at its core, is a sin that’s based in distrust. Greed teaches us to never be satisfied but it also teaches us that we won’t be whole without more. Greed teaches us that enough for today is not really enough. We forget to trust when we are consumed by greed. Community is not built well upon a foundation of greed, or a foundation of distrust. There’s a way in which curse or no curse, the new creation in a new land for the Jewish people, would not be possible until they learned to move in a spirit of trust. And that deep truth remains real and present for us today.
But before we close our sermon this morning, there’s an important distinction to be made about trusting that all will be provided for – assuming we do our fair share in the gathering, and preparing, and so forth. There was a point in the story where the people railed against Moses and wanted to return to the slave pits of Egypt. The food – the mana that fell from heaven – didn’t taste like the food they were accosted to in slavery and they missed their Egyptian food. Some wanted to return to slavery rather than learn a new way in a new land. We can be so adverse to change that we will hope to be returned to bondage rather than struggle through the new. 2500 years later and that message still holds truth and power – right?
Sometimes we can’t see that all is provided for, because we don’t like how it’s being provided, or we don’t want what’s been given. One of my mentors, the Rev. Dr. Forrest Church, of our large church in NYC, now deceased, used to say, “Want what you have.” It was a simple message that I’ve never forgotten, and it speaks to this human failing of ours. When we can’t accept the things that are before us that are nonetheless sustaining us, we have forgotten to want what have. The dance between trust and greed spins on this teaching. When we’re on the road to the Promised Land, and we’re striving to build a new creation in our lives and in our community, it’s as important to move away from what is harmful as it is to learn to embrace what is before us, with faith, with trust and to do so together.