Becoming Passover People:
Exodus Lessons in Freedom and Faith
The Reverend Peter Edward Lanzillotta,PhD.
The book of Exodus is among the most important books of the whole Bible. The Exodus story that covers four chapters, is among the most familiar, most enduring, and possibly, the most crucial story for our understanding of freedom- and how the value of freedom has influenced the development of society and how the dynamics of faith and freedom served to shape our civilization.
So today, I will offer a little refresher course, and begin to explore how the Exodus story speaks to us still….
The Exodus, or in the literal Hebrew, ” the coming out” speaks to how we as spiritual and ethical people earnestly can seek to end bondage and slavery wherever we find it in our lives or in our world. It speaks about the qualities of leadership, faith, and devotion that are necessary for freedom to be won, for any chains of oppression to be broken, for personal dignity and worth to be proclaimed.
And as a historical community of an inclusive faith, it is my assertion that such rituals and devotional sharing working together can show us the price paid in endurance and suffering, telling truth to power, and the struggle before human freedom or any genuine purpose is won and then preserved.
At the Exodus, the leaders were two brothers; the prophet Moses and the priest Aaron, who together possessed the moral courage, the ethical conviction, and the willing disobedience to follow through on their vision and mission to confront, and eventually defeat the gross injustices that were imposed on their people.
You see, in an earlier time, the Hebrew people enjoyed relative prosperity, and general level of acceptance and integration within the Egyptian kingdom. Under the important influence of the last Hebrew patriarch, Joseph, who was the prophetic dreamer and chief counsel to the Pharaoh, the Hebrews gained a foothold in the culture, and grew in population to become a separate nation within a nation…
But as time and circumstance have their way of influencing history and creating the need to make different decisions, the critical concern for the greater good of all the people in the nation of Israel was at stake. This change occured when Joseph’s importance was no longer known or honored. This forgetting or the absence of connection changed the status of the Hebrews who found themselves increasingly ostracized and oppressed. As they became more marginalized and disenfranchised within the Egyptian culture, they became the convenient scapegoats as a race and as a people, so that they became the indentured slaves and servants of the new reigning Pharaoh and his court’s empire building.
These new, harsh and disillusioning experiences weighed heavily on the Hebrew people. In the face of such continued and unmerited oppression, they prayed to their God for deliverance- to send them a leader who would break their bonds and release their shackles… A leader and a vision that would lift them out of despair, and carry them forward to a new home, described as the land of milk and honey, or a land where they would be free to live in dignity and community.
As all of you remember, it was at this time that Moses returned from his self-protective exile. Previously, he had left Egypt in a dramatic hurry, having already spurned his royal heritage to live among his own people.
As a young man of 40, his zeal to defend his family and to reverse the abuses he witnessed. In their defense, he murdered a guard, and then he had to flee to the distant land of Midian, to escape the Pharaoh’s wrath!
While in Midian for 40 years, he lived under the guidance and tutelage of his priestly father in-law Jethro, and had married Zipporah, his daughter… After receiving his spiritual call and commission to serve God in the miracle of the burning bush, ( Ex. 3) Moses then feels compelled to end his simple and safe life, and to valiantly return to Egypt and to confront the Pharaoh, and demand release for the Hebrews. Joining him there in that confrontation was Aaron his older brother, and his sister, Miriam.
Now, most of you know the story from here… The challenge to the Pharaoh, the 10 plagues, and then the Passover story…
And in some basic ways, it doesn’t matter that much if you prefer the glossy, glorified account of Cecil B de Mille and Charlton Heston, or the animated Prince of Egypt, or whether you would prefer to learn the more academic and accurate story from me in an inductive and inclusive Bible
study. What is importance for today’s time together is that you begin to fully appreciate that this story, for the Exodus or the coming out, is a universal human or archetypal story that retains its timeless value for our individual lives and for many of our contemporary cultural challenges today.
The hymns today chosen for this service begin to attest to this crucial importance of the Exodus theme, for it addresses the human need to be free of slavery and bondage as best exemplified through Afro-American or Black history in this country.
Many scholars steeped in this history and aware of cultural values of the African-American experience could attest that the shared and rehearsed religious importance of the Exodus story in African-American culture and worship equals any values and virtues taught or accepted within the larger Bible and the Christian Scriptures.
Setting aside the inadequacy of our hymnals, for today’s service, I chose tunes from the great emotionally resonating melodies that can found among these spirituals that gave hope and heart to the struggle against the political and cultural realities of the ante-bellium South.
However, let’s be clear, a strong and a similar case for the importance of inspirational songs that celebrate freedom can be made in Latin America or Africa today, or wherever a class of people, a race, a nation, feels compelled to rise up, to challenge or to change the injustices that can be found among us worldwide. In a particularly symbolic and moving way, the music of liberation helps the Exodus story to retain its power; a power found in an enduring faith amidst despair, and through songs that declare that the justice that is promised will arrive, and the human need for equality, compassion and dignity will overcome.
A second point, one more personal and pressing for each of us, is to let the Exodus story guide us in this country, in this church, in our lives.
Using its lessons as the framework for our investigation and actions, we are urged to look at whatever oppresses, restricts, and holds us in its bondage. The Exodus encourages us to look at any place in our lives where we have accepted an unholy, unjust imprisonment- whether that slavery is to our addictions or to our fears. We learn from the bravery and conviction of the Exodus that by working, praying, and banding together, we can effectively address any issues and every concern that hold us down, that limits us, or that might keep any of us from a wider sense of mission and purpose and a greater sense of our self worth. The Exodus story, you see, is everybody’s story of freedom, and it holds the keys to our release, our healing, to restitution, and to the promise of bright tomorrow.
For today, however, let us focus on our comprehension of time, and the urgency felt among the Hebrews… and the urgency to do and to dare that exists among all those who seek to make a significant change in their lives. The Hebrews had to pack up and move quickly- they had to seize the opportunity to leave Egypt before the Pharaoh had a chance to change his mind! As we read in our Passover selections in the Hymnal, contemporary poet Alla Bozarth puts it this way:
“Pack nothing. Bring only your determination to serve and your willingness to be free. Don’t wait for the bread to rise- be ready to move…” ” Do not hesitate to leave your old ways behind- begin quickly before you have the time to return to old slavery…. I will give you dreams to guide you safely to your new home- to a place yet unseen, but surely a place that awaits you…”
Another connection … I remember when Christy returned from a trip to Colorado with much enthusiasm. She reported to the Board about the sermon she heard by the Rev. Peter Morales at the Jefferson church. She said that he spoke about changes and the transitions needed to move from a limited past to a new more expansive future. He spoke of the critical need to carry only the essentials of the past with us- those values and ideals, those friendships and warm memories, and then be willing to leave the rest. In this excerpt from his sermon, he revisited the Exodus story and its freedom imperatives in these words:
‘You only got 2 minutes. You can only take with you the equivalent of one small carryon bag…” Then he asked, “What do you grab for as you run for your life?” … Unless you and I are willing to let go, and leave anything that is not essential behind, we will remain prisoners of our past, shackled to our possessions, imprisoned by our memories, and held in bondage to our habits. [Whether we are fighting illness or injustice, addiction or relocation, employment crisis or relational grief,] each of us gets to carry only a little bit of the past with us. …” Instead, we are encouraged by the story resonating through us, that to achieve our goals we need to change the focus of our energies and our priorities, and ask ourselves these two questions: “We have to ask ourselves what will nourish us for this journey? And What will sustain us in creating a new future?”
As I see it, when a person or a family, a church or a nation moves towards its future, and moves away from its past shadowy limitations, it moves from bondage to freedom,” and it learns to have “faith above fear,” and to trust “its dawning future more” than its dimly lit past.
As believers in religious and personal freedom, and as people who understand the price of liberation is uncertainty and risk, and its rewards are hard won, precious, and enduring, I ask you to spend a little reflective time to delve into your personal Exodus story, and see if its insights and courage will help you with the challenges and changes you or someone in your family is facing. Then as we expand our circle of caring amd attention outward, I ask you to apply the liberating ideals of the Exodus story to the various groups in your life, and to see if somehow the lessons of non-attachment the and wisdom to learn from one’s past found in those Biblical pages applies to the changes and decisions this community, this state, and this country has to face….
As I conclude this quick look at the Exodus, it is my hope and my desire that as a result of our faith, and our willingness to work together towards release and freedom, we will find within ourselves, a new set of possibilities- that we will be on the way to the Promised land, and that we may we create together a new Jerusalem of love, justice, education, and healing for ourselves, our larger neighborhoods, and our world. So Be It!