by Rev. Joseph Connolly
“This is how you are to eat the animal: your loins girded, your belt buckled, your sandals on your feet, and a staff in your hand; you shall eat it hurriedly, in haste. It is the Passover of Yahweh.” — Exodus 12:11.
As I am sure we all know, John Adams was the second President of the United States. And John Adams was not just one of the people who signed the Declaration of Independence. John Adams was one of the driving intellectual forces behind the fact that the British Colonies which became the United States of America declared independence.
In a letter to his wife, Abigail, dated July 3rd 1776— and it should be noted Adams needs to be forgiven for naming the wrong date in the letter I am about to quote since the resolution to declare independence really did pass on July the 2nd of that year. Further, what actually happened on July the 4th was that the wording of the Declaration of Independence, itself, was approved. In any case, in a letter to his wife, Abigail, dated July 3rd 1776, Adams proved to be very much a predictor of the future, a prognosticator, by writing the following.
(Quote:) “The second day of July 1776, will be the most memorable… in the history of America. I am apt to believe it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as a great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to God, Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more.”1
And so it is solemnized. Of course, it’s the Fourth we celebrate, not the Second. But we do, in fact, celebrate it with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other.
Also please note the other prediction by Adams contained in these words. He said “from one end of this continent to the other,” when the geographical limit of these thirteen burgeoning states was only the east coast.
This brings me to the fact that the independence of this nation is celebrated with many and various rituals and, as noted, some of them were predicted by Adams. But the very celebration with ritual defines a challenge. What does independence mean? And how is that idea of independence actually tied to our rituals of celebration?
Do these oft repeated rituals in some way help us understand independence? After all, I am sure we can all agree that true independence, real independence, is not about ritual. And what is true independence? What is real independence? (Slight pause.)
We find these words in the work known as Exodus: “This is how you are to eat the animal: your loins girded, your belt buckled, your sandals on your feet, and a staff in your hand; you shall eat it hurriedly, in haste. It is the Passover of Yahweh.” (Slight pause.)
Many of you may have noticed the sermon title which clearly looks like it’s a peculiar word— Pesach. And, yes, it is peculiar. Pesach is a transliteration from the Hebrew for the word that means “Passover.”
This reading we heard concentrates on what might be called the procedures followed by the Israelites when the first Passover happened, the story of its origin. And, at the end of today’s passage, we hear this (quote:) “…all the following generations shall observe this forever as a feast day.”
And so it has been, year after year after year after year for something in the neighborhood of 3,000 years the Jewish people have kept Passover with ritual. If you have ever been to a Seder, the ritual meal of the Feast of Passover, you know there is a ceremony held before everyone eats a very real and often sumptuous meal. For those of you who have never been to a Seder, the ritual meal is a solemn retelling of the happenings recorded in Scripture concerning the Exodus event.
An explanation of the events is recited in the course of the ceremony. The illustrations therein contained range from eating a bitter herb such as horseradish which signifies the bitterness of the enslavement experienced by the Hebrew people to repeating and listing the plagues endured by the Egyptians.
There is also a reminder that the Israelites left with haste and so there was no time for bread dough to rise. Hence, matzah, the unleavened flatbread made of flour and water is consumed. There is much more to this ritual meal than what I’ve mentioned and it is ritual— all ritual.
However, when done in an appropriate way, a Seder ceremony contains enough narrative accompanying the ceremony so that the different pieces and aspects of the Seder helps examine the Exodus event with a fullness of detail. To be clear, all this ritual is rendered meaningless unless a participant in a Seder comes away with an understanding of the depth of meaning contained in the ritual.
A participant needs to try to mentally engage not just in the narrative of what happened but also to engage in what each part the Seder ritual represents. Therefore, the ritual, itself, is not the point of the Seder. The meanings behind the ritual are the point. (Slight pause.)
Well, before I get to the meanings behind the ritual, let me raise another issue. Perhaps because of modern movies and even earlier novels which dramatized the Exodus event, we tend to think in terms of hundreds of thousands of Israelites fleeing captivity in Egypt.
But most Biblical scholars agree, visualizing this story with multitudes of people is a figment of our collective imagination. It is much more likely that, if a real Exodus event happened— and there is some clear evidence an Exodus event did happen— at most— at most— several thousand people participated in it.
The very limits of those numbers should, I hope, push us to ask what does this Seder ritual mean? Since there were so few fleeing Egypt, why has the ritual been repeated for 3,000 years? (Slight pause.)
I want to suggest the ritual of the Seder has a singular meaning. Passover is a commemoration of the liberation of Israelites by God from slavery. Hence, Passover is not about the incident, not about the Exodus event, itself. Rather, Passover is about liberation— the liberation offered by God. (Slight pause.)
Let me add one thing. Those same Biblical scholars who suggest the size of the Exodus event was small also say the Exodus event is the most important episode of the Hebrew Scriptures. Why? Why is the Exodus the most important episode?
As much as there is narrative and as much as there are signs of the covenant God makes with the people of God all over the Hebrew Scriptures, the Exodus event is the singular and central sign of the covenant of God. You see, as I just suggested, the Exodus event is about the liberation, the freedom, the deliverance, the equity, the saving action, the redeeming, forgiving grace God offers. And that is what the covenant God offers is about.
So, the ritual is not in place to remind people about what happened. We know what happened. The ritual is in place to remind people about the liberation, the freedom, the deliverance, the equity, the saving action, the redeeming, forgiving grace God offers.
Therefore, what does covenant of God really mean? Oh, yes! I remember! The covenant of God really means God offers us liberation, freedom, deliverance, equity, saving action, redeeming, forgiving grace. That’s covenant. (Slight pause.)
That brings me back to one Mr. John Adams and July 4th and the words of the Declaration of Independence. Many see the words which say that certain truths appear to be self-evident, and that those truths include all being created equal, being endowed by the Creator with the unalienable rights such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are the most important part of the Declaration.
Now, I’ve said this here before. I want to suggest there is a set of words toward the end of the Declaration are by far of much more import than those opening thoughts.
These words state that the signers rely on the protection of Divine Providence and they mutually pledge to each other their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. Pledging to each other lives, fortunes and sacred honor— that, my friends, means these people attempted to live in covenant with each other because of the covenant God offers— the words say, “Divine Providence.” And Adams, good Congregationalist that he was, would have known that and acknowledged that.
Well, that brings me back to us, to the church. We, the church, cannot be simply about ritual.
We, the church, need to be about being in covenant with God and being in covenant with each another. If we do that, if we remain in covenant with God and each other, we will be empowered to be mindful of God and fearless when it comes to the mission to which God calls us. Let me repeat that: mindful of God and fearless when it comes to the mission to which God calls us.
Indeed, in the passage from the Gospel reading Jesus says “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” The collectiveness of that statement, the mutual covenant, is the message we really need to hear even in those words. Why? Covenant with each other fulfills the covenant to which God calls us. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “I think most of we moderns, when we think about covenant, say something like— ‘Covenant— well, it’s just me and God.’ That is not what Scripture says. Scripture says the covenant with God is worked out and acted our with each other. So, if our rituals do not remind us that we need to be in covenant with God and each other either we are doing it wrong or we need different rituals. And so, what is true independence? Perhaps real independence is interdependence on each other.”
BENEDICTION: Let us go forth in the Spirit of Christ. Let us seek the will of God. Let us put aside ambition and conceit for the greater good. Let us serve in joyous obedience. (Slight pause.) And hear this prayer of Melanesian Islanders: May Jesus be the canoe that holds us up in the sea of life. May Jesus be the rudder that keeps us on a straight course. May Jesus be the outrigger that supports us in times of trial. May the Spirit of Jesus be our sail that carries us through each day. Amen.
1Note: I’ve modernized the punctuation and spellings.