The old stereotype of how to write a sermon says that all you need are three points and poem. Well, I usually try to keep it to just one point, and I've probably used poetry at all as many times as I could count on my fingers. So, today I’m just going to mess up that stereotype even more. I’m going to start with a poem. If technology cooperates we will hear the poem “ Forgetfulness” read by its author, Billy Collins, poet laureate of the United States 2001-2003 and frequent Prairie Home Companion guest. If not, I’ll read it myself. Cross your fingers with me.
by Billy Collins
Forgetfulness is what hurt the Israelites in Egypt, maybe not their own forgetfulness, but forgetfulness just the same. The book of Exodus begins with a declaration that a new king had risen over Egypt, one who did not remember Joseph. Joseph, the favorite son of Jacob, who came to Egypt as a mere slave, but who’s stunning work with dreams and management of natural resources had saved the nation from seven years of drought and famine. The new pharaoh didn't know a thing about this Joseph; the collective memory about how these other people had come to live with the Egyptians had faded, and forgetfulness led to the enslavement and oppression of the Israelites. Forgetfulness.
It’s a human problem, though, not a divine one. In the midst of their slavery, when the Israelites are being treated harshly by their masters, being beaten while they work, having their sons thrown into the Nile at birth, groaning and crying out to God under their slavery, God remembers. God remembers the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God remembers the promise of generations and blessing and land. God remembers the way it’s supposed to be, the way it will be someday, and God works out a memory for the future.
I hate to assume we all know anything, but the story of the Exodus and what leads up to it is one of the most told stories in the western world. The movies get a lot of a right, or at least for our purposes, close to right. God calls an unlikely leader in Moses. He’s unsure of himself, not very confident about his speaking ability, even a bit of an outsider in his community, having been raised in the palace as the princess’s son. Yet, still God continues to work through him, giving him messages and warnings to take to Pharaoh while demanding for God, “Let my people go!” Plagues come down on Egypt, one after another, until finally the tenth and most horrific plagues is upon them, the death of all the first born in the land. From the first born of Pharaoh, to the first born of the slaves, to the first born of the livestock, all will be struck dead unless Pharaoh lets the Israelites go.
But remember how this all started? Didn't it start with forgetfulness and remembering? Pharaoh had forgotten and God remembered. God knows our tendency to forget. God knows our tendency to forget not just the little stuff – like where I put my keys or the names of the nine muses, or the capital of Paraguay. God knows our tendency to forget even the big stuff – like who saved the nation and the known world from famine, how these people who are different came to live in the same land, or maybe even the flip side for us today, how these people who are different from all of us were here in the land before us. God knows our tendency to be preoccupied with what we’re feeling right this second or how we’re going to building comfort and security for our future is so great that we lose sight of the one who brought us through to the present. And so before they even leave the land, before they are even out of slavery and Egypt, God gets them ready for what they will forget. God gives them a sign, a feast, and way to tell the story.
The instructions are very specific for the ritual meal they are commanded to share. It’s a meal for the road, really, not a long drawn out dinner party - - a whole lamb or goat for the household or one to share between smaller households. Nothing should remain until morning. The Israelites will need their strength and in the morning they will be leaving. There’s no time to wait for the bread to rise. They are to eat it unleavened. It’s a hurried meal, no time for lounging around. They aren't supposed to take their shoes off, even, but eat with their sandals on their feet, their staffs in hand, their bodies wrapped and ready to leave at a moment’s notice. And of course, there’s the most memorable instruction of all, some of the blood of the animal shall be smeared on their doorposts, so that God will know where to find the Israelites, right?
Partly right. When the moment actually comes, and the plague of the death of the firstborns is being enacted, God uses the blood on the doorposts to identify Israelite homes. But when the instruction is given, when the meal is to be eaten, God says the blood is for something else altogether. “The blood,” God says in the instructions to Moses, “The blood shall be a sign for you.”
God knows they will forget. God knows they will get caught up in worrying about how they will leave their home, how they will carry what is needed, how they will escape from the Egyptians, how they will make it out of the land… God knows their minds will wander away from the covenant and promise and providence of God, so right there in the middle of the instructions for their last meal in Egypt, God gives a sign for them.
Signs are so important for our memory. Signs can bring us back to center in the midst of crisis and confusion, doubt or uncertainty. It’s why we send and receive cards in the midst of illness and grief, to remind one another of the love and support of friends and family in our most difficult times. It’s why we wear rings to mark a marriage relationship, to remember the covenants we have made with our partner. It’s why we place empty crosses in our church or in our homes, to remember the promise of new life, to re-center our thoughts, our prayers, our lives on the hope of God. Signs remind us who we are, from where we have come, what is important in our life, from our past, for our future. God gave the Israelites a sign, so that in the midst of chaos and death and confusion, they would remember that God is at work, even in what they cannot understand.
And in addition to sign for that day, God gave them command for the future, a way to remember what’s happening. A way to remember God’s providence. A way to remember how God saved their lives and their blessing and their future. I wonder if in the middle of the chaos Moses looked at God and said, “What?!?! Do you think this is something we could ever forget?” Does it sound like something you would ever forget? The faithfulness of God to God’s promises. The redemption and salvation of people in slavery. Being remembered when everyone else seems to have forgotten. Being loved when hate and oppression surround. Being free when all we have known is slavery.
The truth is we forget it all the time. The truth is we get caught up in ourselves and our lives, our present and our plans for the future, that we forget the promises of God that have come true for us again and again. We forget how God was present even in our darkest moments, bringing us back to the light of day. We forget how God has forgiven our sins of the past, as we feel buried in our present guilt. We forget how God gave us strength to overcome addiction, to persevere through poverty, to walk through deep valleys of grief to live life in a new land, a land flowing with milk and honey. In the land of milk and honey, it is easy to forget from where we have come and most importantly who brought us there.
So, God gave the Israelites, before they even left Egypt, a way to remember God’s act of salvation. God gave them step by step instructions for what, when, and how to eat a meal of remembrance. God gave them a festival with ritual foods and commanded conversation so that they would never forget - - not when struggles with the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Hivites, and Jebusites got long and difficult, not when the land was flowing with milk and honey. God gave them a ritual to remember that God remembers, God saves, God loves.
I've tried it once before, and I didn't get any grumbling, so I think I’ll try it again. I've got some homework for us this week. (Maybe there wasn't any grumbling because no one bothered to do it.) Here’s the homework: Each day this week, write down somewhere, somewhere private, somewhere public as a family, just write down somewhere, a time from your own past when God brought you through a difficult time, out of the land of Egypt, out of sin, out of poverty, out of oppression from addiction, depression, grief or restlessness. Write down a time when God remembered you and and heard your cry. That’s it. Just remember.
Of course, I hope those memories will bring about stories that are told to one another, to your children and your children’s children. I hope these memories will be shared with others, maybe around the Fellowship Hall tables, maybe at the Presbyterian Friendship dinner, maybe at Men's Breakfast, maybe at Soup and Spirit, maybe in Sunday School, maybe on the church blog. (I'll put mine there is anyone wants to join me.) I hope these memories of God's faithfulness will be shared because on person's memory is another person's hope and that's what we are called to be for one another and for the world - proclaimers of hope and freedom. I hope those memories will bring about prayers of thanksgiving. But the homework is only to remember that God brought you out, that God brought you out.
If we remember now all the times we have heard “your sins are forgiven,” all the hugs of friends that carried the love of Christ, all the days of recovery, all the reconciled relationships, all the healing, all the companionship, all release from guilt and grief, these will be our signs. These will be the words of the love poem we will know by heart again. These will be our reminders of the spirit of life, our hope for years to come.