Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Sermon: Why Do We Remember

Exodus 12:1-14

Most of the events of the Bible happened a long time ago. They are often about people and situations that are very different from our modern world. They talk about things that are parts of a culture that literally is foreign to us, because it takes place in a different part of the world; and a culture that is primitive in its attitudes towards women, animals, children, and life in general.

And yet, we still read them, and some of them we still read and remember on a regular basis.

For example, today’s story. Passover is over 3000 years old. It is a story of the Israelite slaves being set free from Egypt. It is a reminder of a situation where God tried and tried to persuade Pharaoh and the Egyptians to do what was right, and let their slaves go free. God sent a messenger, Moses; God sent signs and wonders, and God even sent plagues. But nothing worked. And in the end God chooses to do what many of us would hesitate to do – God tells the Israelites to kill a lamb and put the blood on their doorposts, and that night the Spirit of God will pass through the city, and kill the firstborn of any household which does not have blood on the doorposts.

This brutal act finally convinces the Pharaoh to set the slaves free. That’s great, but in many ways this is a story that we find a bit gross – very few of us are likely to kill a lamb and smear some of the blood on our doorposts. Even the Jewish houses don’t do that, although they certainly will eat unleavened bread and have a traditional Seder meal of lamb and bitter herbs. But why do we who are not from Jewish households, for whom Easter has replaced the celebration Passover --  Why do we remember? Why do we continue to remember a story that is so old, that is about people we have never met, and that contains instructions to do things we definitely aren’t going to do?

Let me tell you another story, of another group running from violence, trying to get to freedom. In the early 1980’s there was in the Assam region of India group of Muslims that had lived in the area since immigrating from Bangladesh and Nepal in the early 20th century.

Despite their decades of residence, the government still did not treat them as complete citizens and they did not have the right to vote. In 1983 that change, when Indira Gandhi decided to give 4 million immigrants and their descendants the right to vote – it was a huge victory for human rights.

But the other people of the surrounding villages were not happy. And on February 18th in the villages of Nellie and its nearby neighbors, the non-Muslims decided to drive the Muslims from their land. In the just six hours they massacred 2191 from 14 villages in the area.[1]

One survivors says, “I saw our people leaving their homes and running... I tied one of my sons to my back and held the other one... I ran... I was thirsty... I made my sons sit down... The older one walked towards the river and drank the murky water... Then they started to fire at us... I ran...”[2] And due to the graphic nature, I will stop quoting him there.

What is amazing about this event is that it is largely forgotten. Very few people talk about it, even in India, even though nearly 2200 people died. The director of What the Fields Remember a documentary about this almost forgotten event says, “There hardly exists any conversation around Nellie except as some kind of a footnote when we talk of places where mass violence has taken place. So I was also interested in the larger question of what we choose to remember and forget — basically the idea of collective memory and amnesia. I am hoping that the narratives of the survivors will leave the audience with some of these questions — questions not just about Nellie, but places that have seen conflict or continue to.”[3]

Why is this event nearly forgotten? And of course it would take a sociologist to really answer that, but here is what I was left thinking –

Perhaps the better question about Passover is why would we dare to forget something that is so vital to who we are as Christians just because it happened so long ago, just because it makes us uncomfortable?

The truth is that we can forget that we were once part of a people who were oppressed, who were enslaved. We can forget that we were once the people that were crying out to God for help, against the evils of the world. We can forget that we share a common history with every person who is oppressed today, who lives in a land that is not their first home, who does not feel welcomed, who is enslaved, or watches their children die at the hands of evil governmental regimes or at the hands of angry mobs.

And what happens when we forget? Oh we know the quote don’t we. I probably don’t even have to share it, but I will. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana. Yes, that is the problem with forgetting. When we forget that we were once on the receiving end of mistreatment, what often happens is that we are tempted to step into the role of the oppressors. We are tempted to be the people who enslave others, we are tempted to take up sickles against people we think are the foreigners. That’s what happens when we forget – we become the Pharaohs of today whose hearts become so hard that we don’t care if others are suffering as long as we are doing okay.

But let me be more specific. One of the absolutely necessary steps in the development of compassion for other people is being able to share in their pain. That is what compassion means. The root passion means to suffer, and the prefix com means with. Compassion is suffering with another person.

But to have compassion for another person we must feel connected to them. If we feel like unconnected, if we feel like they are others, outsiders, totally different from us, we cannot have compassion on them – we won’t suffer with them and our hearts will be hard. The only way to soften our hearts is to see how we are alike in our humanity. It is seeing ourselves in others, seeing in their pain our pain.

We need to be able to see ourselves in the hungry, in the enslaved, in the suffering. We need to be able to see ourselves in the hurting. That is part of the essential development of compassion: a realization that their pain is my pain.

If we want to avoid being hard-hearted like Pharaoh, if we want to follow the words of Paul in Ephesians 4:32, “Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to each other, in the same way God forgave you in Christ.”, If we want to follow the words of Jesus in Luke 6:36, “Be compassionate just as your God is compassionate.”, we dare not forget. We have to remember, otherwise we will lose our link to the suffering and the enslaved, and we may find ourselves one day on the wrong side of God’s will.

You see, that’s the other reason we remember this story. Not only do we remain connected to each other as human beings, but this story helps us to stay connected with the heart of God.

It reminds us that God cares so much about the plight of the oppressed that God is willing to go to great lengths, uncomfortable lengths to end evil and oppression. It reminds us that Jesus came not only to set souls free, but to help people to live life fully and abundantly here on earth. That he was sent “to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

This is good news! It means that God not only cares about you after you die, but God cares about your situation now. It means that God wants slavery to end. It means that God sees the suffering of humanity and not only cares, but is actively at work saving those who are oppressed.

When we remember that, we can share the hope of Passover – that God has set people free in the past – and we can be agents of that hope as we work to set a new people free. We can say, “We understand that it feels like nothing is changing.” We can talk about how plague after plague Pharaoh resisted and refused to budge, how systems can seem totally impossible to move—but God will not give up on you.  This type of sharing keeps hope alive in people who are suffering so that they hold onto the dream of change, it keeps hope alive in people who are working for change so that they know God is helping them along the way. It reminds us that true peace, true justice, and true mercy are being woven by the master weaver into the tapestry of life.

That is why we remember these stories even though so much about them is foreign to us. We remember because they teach us compassion, they teach us God’s heart for the suffering and oppressed, and they proclaim everlasting hope. And we need that. Our world needs that!

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nellie_massacre
[2] http://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/baradwaj-rangan-on-what-the-fields-remember/article7641365.ece
[3] http://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/baradwaj-rangan-on-what-the-fields-remember/article7641365.ece

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