Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved
In a hushed South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing in 1996, a Black mother tearfully spoke of her son. She recounted her son’s birth, his success in school and his growing bitterness, as he grew into a teenager, of the apartheid regime. She feared for him because of his seething anger. One night her front door was knocked down, white security police rushed inside and took away her son. A few days later she was summoned to claim her son’s body. She recounted finding him so bruised, bloodied and riddled with 19 bullets that she could barely recognize him. Her memories overwhelmed her and most on the panel and those in the audience wept quietly. “I do not know if I can forgive,” she said. “I must know who did this to my son. When I see the face of the one who killed him, and he tells me why, then perhaps I can forgive.”
A week later, an ex security police officer, appearing before the Commission, read from a prepared text, “We blindfolded them and took them to a stone quarry outside the town. We hung Subject Number 1 upside down from a tree branch and lit a fire under him. When his hair burned he screamed a lot, then told us everything. The others also confessed. After that, we shot them. Our report said they had resisted arrest.” The families of the victims were sitting only a few feet away. They finally heard what had happened to their sons and brothers. The truth had been told.
I hesitate opening a spring holiday message with such a disturbing story. What I hope it reveals, however, is the power of telling, understanding and ultimately redeeming the past. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, working from 1996 to 1998 has been criticized for its emphasis on truth finding, confession, amnesty and reconciliation as opposed to punishment and determining guilt. But it has also been highly praised because, unlike the Nuremburg Trials at the end of World War Two, this commission did not seek retribution as much as restoration and reconciliation. Echoing the words of Jesus, it lived out the idea that the truth will set one free. In South Africa, both victims and victimizers were, in their own ways, liberated from the shackles of their past. In return for confession and truth telling of their past crimes, perpetrators were granted amnesty from criminal conviction. What had been a horrible episode in human history became something greater than mere evil. It was transformed and redeemed precisely because it was brought into the light and not buried as something shameful and unworthy of discussion.
I believe that we cannot learn from our past if we do not seek its reality and find a way to memorialize it so that it will not be forgotten. The South African Commission produced a five volume report that detailed all that it had learned – much of it confessed and previously unknown – so that the reality of apartheid can never be denied and will be studied far into the future. Robert Penn Warren, a noted American poet, once said that “The lack of a sense of history is the damnation of the modern world.” And Ken Burns, the famous documentary film maker, added, “History really isn’t about the past and settling old scores. It is about defining the present and who we are.”
And so, as we sit here on the eve of Passover which begins for Jewish people tomorrow evening, I hope to think about how we might apply the meaning of that holiday into our own lives. Ultimately, Passover or Pesach, as it is known in Hebrew, is about redemption and honoring one’s individual and communal past through remembering and re-enacting. It is about looking at the past as a way to learn, unite, teach and offer hope for the future. Each of us have memories of our own past – some good and some full of pain. We also carry legacies from our ancestors and our communities that are known to us only through stories or the history book. Each of these memories have value, they are important, and they should be re-told.
And that is the essential lesson of the Passover holiday. Jews around the world celebrate their common heritage. But the celebration speaks a louder spiritual truth, I believe, of the importance of remembering and honoring the past in order to transform it into useful memories for our present and future. If we cannot, in some fashion, acknowledge and understand who we are and where we come from – as well as the good and bad in our past – we will remain wayward and undefined souls with no direction. For Jews the world over, Passover defines who they are as a people, both collectively and individually.
The holiday is also a time for coming together. In many places, Jews celebrate the holiday in large settings with hundreds of others. On this one occasion, they set aside their differences to unite in a time of remembrance. For today, for this one moment in time, let us also put aside our differences and live out the ideals of Passover. I hope we will meditate on such ideas this morning as we participate in a partial Passover Seder and later join in a community meal of celebration.
The book of Exodus in the Bible says about Passover, “And this day shall be for you for a memorial, and you shall keep it as a feast; throughout your generations you shall keep it a feast forever.” The holiday’s specific purpose is to remember and celebrate the past as a way to find hope for the future. As many of you know, the Biblical myth or story of Exodus tells us that thousands of Jews were held as slaves in Egypt until Moses, chosen by God to be the Jewish leader, led them out of their bondage.
And Moses, by all accounts, was a diffident and insecure man. He was adopted and raised within Pharaoh’s palace only to later discover his true Jewish heritage. He fled the comforts of Cairo to be a sheep herder and then had a burning bush encounter with God. He argued with the Divine One about his ability and worthiness to be a leader but he ultimately agreed and returned to confront Pharaoh in a series of events designed to showcase the power of Yahweh over a multitude of Egyptian deities.
The ten plagues visited upon Egypt by God, acting through Moses, were intended to convince both Egyptian and Jew that God is real and that he has the power to control nature. The Nile is turned to blood, infestations of frogs and locusts are created, cattle die by the thousands, daylight is turned into night, skin infections spread and, finally, first born offspring of humans and livestock are condemned to death. Once again, the power of the story about Ten Plagues is not in whether it is literal history or not, but in the lessons of the myth. Humans, in their arrogance, assume they are all powerful. We learn, instead, that nature and its forces are far more capable.
With the tenth plague that Moses brought upon Egypt, that all first born males should die, Pharaoh was finally convinced and allowed the Jews to flee. To save their own firstborn males, however, God offered Jews a way out – they could smear their doorposts with the blood of a lamb thus signifying to the angel of death that such households should be spared. The angel should pass over such homes.
The Jews flee from Cairo but are eventually chased by an angry Pharaoh and his armies. Moses parts the Red Sea, allowing Jews to literally walk through the water. Once the Jews are safely across the sea, its waters pour down upon Pharaoh and his armies, drowning and defeating them. God showed his power, saved his faithful followers and put them on a course to return them to Palestine – the land of milk and honey.
In a commentary on human nature, the Jews began to grumble about their journey across a hot desert, the simple food they were given and their longing for the comforts of Egypt. In ultimate defiance to God, they defied his rules – the Ten Commandments – and openly worshipped a golden calf statue – a symbol of greed, lust and non-belief. In his anger, God condemned them to wander in the desert for forty years until all of those currently alive were dead – such that only their children would enter the Promised Land.
For Orthodox Jews, who believe in the literal history of Passover, and for Reformed Jews, who see the story as allegory and myth, the importance of the holiday is its message of redemption and remembrance. From the pain of slavery came deliverance and redemption into a new land. And Jews use the holiday to remember many of their past hardships – ancient slavery, their defeat by the Romans, widespread discrimination against them during the Middle Ages, the years of holocaust when six million of their number were killed and recent years of warfare, terrorism and isolation. From each episode, they also acknowledge the good that resulted.
The holiday celebrated each year culminates in a meal of remembrance and celebration. The Seder meal begins with each participant raising the first of four cups of wine and repeating the Exodus promise of God – that He will deliver them from their slavery. For Jews and for us, such is not just a religious promise. It is, as we discussed last Sunday, a promise that I believe we can all trust – that the collective human spirit works to turn bad into good. Over the long term, evil does not prevail. I hope you will join me now, as we re-enact a Passover Seder this morning. (Pour wine) Let us raise our first cup of wine with a toast to the ideal that in each of us is goodness, that we are to work to create a better world and that the arc of human progress is, as Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, a long one, but it bends towards justice and goodness. To that promise, let us raise a toast!
Throughout a Seder meal, the Passover story is told and reinterpreted to bring meaning and value to the present. After the first cup, participants are reminded of the ancient enslavement and of other past trials. At this time, matza bread is passed to each person – symbolizing the unleavened bread Jews were forced to make at the first Passover. They had no time to allow the bread to rise. It is eaten with a bitter herb, as a symbol of past hardships. For us, let us too eat matza with a bit of horseradish to memorialize times in our own pasts when we have faced adversity – illness, loss, discrimination, depression, hatred. We have each dealt with such stings in our lives. (Pass matza and horseradish) Let us eat the bitter herb in remembrance of that time and in empathy for one another and our past hurts.
And with that, let us also drink the second cup of Passover promise that we are never alone in our pain. We have families, friends and the people of this congregation who will stand with us in time of trial. Let us make a toast to that promise as much as we also pledge to be a source of comfort to others. (Drink second “cup” of wine)
The Passover meal continues with further telling of the story. At the culmination of the myth, when the angel of death passed over Jewish homes but descended on those of the Egyptians, it is told that wailing and crying was heard throughout the land. To remember their own tears as well as to empathize with the pain of others, a vegetable, dipped in salt or saltwater, is eaten. Karpas as it is known in Hebrew, symbolizes tears of sorrow and empathy. Jews recall the tears of Egyptian parents discovering the death of a child, the tears of all who have been oppressed and the tears of those who mourn the loss of loved ones. Let us eat a bit of parsley dipped in salt and let this be a symbol of our tears and our love for those from our past we hold dear and for those in our midst who suffer and cry. They are not forgotten. They are a part of who we are. (Eat parsley dipped in salt)
And in this moment, let us also drink a third cup Passover toast to loved ones we remember. (Drink “third” cup of wine) In doing so, we fulfill the promise that they are eternally redeemed – from sorrow to joy – in our memories of them and the happiness they still bring. They are not lost to us.
Finally, as the retelling of the Passover story during a Seder meal concludes, participants are reminded of its happy ending. The ancient Jews were saved, they were delivered out of bondage and they were brought to a land of promise that flowed with milk and honey. At this point in the meal, more matza is passed around along with charoset – a sweet mixture of apples, nuts and honey – to symbolize celebration and joy. Jews remember their collective happiness at the founding of the nation of Israel as well as individual joys found in marriages, births, anniversaries and other momentous life events. Out of pain comes healing. Out of darkness comes light. In this symbolic recreation of redemption, Jews and non-Jews embrace the spiritual truth of good in our world – that there is love in the human heart, that life is not uniformly full of hurt, that in community we find support and caring for one another, that collectively humans work for social justice and a better creation. As they eat the matza and sweet apple mixture and drink the fourth cup of wine – and let us follow suit – Jews proclaim L’chaim! to each other. L’chaim! We proclaim to one another. To Life! To Health! To Joy! (Eat the matza and apple mix and drink “fourth” cup)
I believe, my friends, that in order to be content and happy in our lives, we must both understand and redeem our past. Both collectively and individually, there is great value in learning about and honoring the good and the bad events and people in our histories. By remembering the past, we come together, we learn from each other, we preserve our history by retelling it, we avoid repeating past mistakes by learning from them, we establish a common identity and we find ways to turn bad into good. We act as little gods to redeem our world.
Ultimately, as the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission proved – and as the documentarian Ken Burns pointed out – by understanding and remembering our past we learn about ourselves. What legacies do we carry with us that determine how we act? What evil lurks in the hearts of all people such that we can learn how to be better? What memories do each of us have – good and bad – such that they help us understand and celebrate who we are? Passover is a beautiful holiday not just for its religious meaning but for its wonderfully humanist perspective. It acknowledges the hurt, pain and evil that exists in our world and in ourselves but it celebrates the hope that such things are not permanent. Love, family, community, charity, kindness, generosity and hope are so much stronger.
As we sit here this morning and as we will soon share a meal together, we present a wonderful image of tolerance and love. While we are not perfect, this is not a false image. With a Passover mindset, many of us are here because we find goodness and redemption here. We find a place to feel whole, a place to be true to ourselves and a place to imperfectly work out our vision of a better and more just world. That is why spiritual communities exist – to heal and empower ourselves to be better people – so that we can then serve others. This is not a holy huddle, the “frozen chosen” or a museum of self-righteous saints. This is a hospital for flawed but deeply lovable souls. And I am one of the patients most in need. We invoke and remember our past – much as is done during Passover – in order to learn, grow and heal.
Let us be a Passover people – those who come together! Together! Together! – to remember and redeem our past, to honor it and to collectively work for and hope for a brighter future.