February 22, 2015 First Sunday of Lent
Luke 22:14-16; Exodus 1:8-14, 3:7-10
Recently my Mother converted the thousands of slides my dad took to digital format. Over the past few weeks, I have been looking through these slides – a few files every day. It has drawn up in me a Passover-like experience. I have been connecting with my family, through the image of bright red hair, the stickiness of fluffy green frosting, the blotchy, itchy chicken pox shared with my siblings, the piled up joy of puppies, the style and ceremony of family celebrations, the stark cold of caskets and tombstones. These images are more than pictures. They are sensations which touch deep memories and transport me into a time past, which connect me with my ancestors. Particularly, I found myself recognizing in my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, the facial features and expressions of my generation. The stories of the pictures gave me an experience of my history.
Stories are important, and stories of our past help to shape our present and future. The people of God have always known this. There are central stories from our Jewish parents and from the time Jesus walked this earth which are captured not only in story-telling, but in the rhythm of life. The stories that mean everything are captured in words – holy Scriptures and ancient liturgies; in foods – which activate the senses of smell, sight and taste; in holy actions which speak to our body memory; in the calendar, days and seasons, giving a holy rhythm to our days, bringing memory to bear on our sense of time. All of these help us reach out over the centuries and, in a sense, take part in the experiences of our ancestors. They also generate an awareness of our heritage and enable us to draw inspiration to face our own situations today.
As Jesus knew that his end was near, he gathered his disciples together for one last meal. Prisoners today have this same opportunity – one last meal of their choice. I am sure the selection of food is made for many different reasons: he just likes that food; she remembers Mom making it when she was sick; he ate it at his wedding, the happiest time of his life; she lived her life outdoors and nothing connects her with nature better than barbeque. Jesus would soon die a criminal’s death. He could see it was the only path. What he had to say, had to be said. And it would be hated. It would make people angry – very important people would be angry. But it had to be said. The state and the religion around him were leading people away from God rather than towards God. They had to turn around and go the other way. It was time to put everything, life itself, into the hope that some might listen and find the way to freedom.
So, for his last meal, Jesus chose the most meaningful meal he knew. The one which celebrated freedom. Perhaps his disciples would remember him as one who celebrated, who led toward freedom to the very last breath.
Today the item before us on the Seder plate is Maror – bitter herbs. We begin here because this is where the story begins. The formative story of the Jewish people was the Exodus. What made them a people, a nation with a distinct identity, was the exodus.
After Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, the people found themselves in slavery in Egypt. It was unspeakably horrible. To be reduced to this! God’s own people always doing someone else’s bidding. Working until they dropped in exhaustion. Sweat and toil, no more human than a machine.
None of us in this room, I venture, can understand in our bodies what this might mean. We are a people who have been born to freedom. Yet, slavery has come near – our ancestors brought slaves to work here among us. Our people killed whole populations because we wanted their land. There are still people who serve us by producing our crops in dripping-hot, dirty, sun up to sun down labor.
Most living Jews today were not born in slavery either. They have no body memory of slavery. They and we are called to remember: Teach your children. Write these truths on your doorposts. Never forget. Never. You were slaves. Now you are free. Life is freedom, not slavery. Tell your children! Never forget!
It is no wonder that Jesus returned to this story, this meal, for his last meal. Here, he could draw strength for what lay ahead. The God who delivered a whole nation in one night, could be trusted with his next few days.
When we think of Jesus’ last supper, we focus on the elements of bread and wine. We will get to these, but that is not where the story begins. Rather, it begins in bitterness. The three ancient elements of the Passover feast were – unleavened bread, lamb, and bitter herbs. It is unlikely that the Passover practice had developed beyond these elements by the time Jesus lived. The Seder developed in response to the destruction of the Temple, when the people could no longer sacrifice the lamb as required by the Law. Whole new elements of the story were added then – the egg, the four cups, the final blessing – all yearning for release from the new slavery the Jews experienced – slavery to other kingdoms, without the holy Temple, without their sacred center.
So we begin with bitter herbs. There are several food items which are allowed to represent the bitter herbs. Lettuce and horseradish are the most common. According to some, “the ideal substance to use for bitter herbs is lettuce. This might surprise some people, but there is a reason for it; it is in the lettuce that we find expressed a very important relationship between slavery and freedom.
The leaves of a lettuce are, of course, not bitter at all. In young fresh lettuce the leaves are crisp and sweet. Nonetheless, the lettuce grows from a green-white stalk which is very bitter indeed. The crisp, sweet leaves represent freedom and the bitter stalk represents slavery.
But there is another aspect of lettuce which seems to make it an appropriate symbol. Lettuce, left in the garden too long does grow bitter indeed! The sweet sprouts and early leaves turn bitter as they are left unharvested. It reminds me of our own lives. If we are left to enjoy our surroundings, without pruning or usefulness, we too, turn bitter. When the good soil and water quit flowing through us and get stored, they begin to turn on themselves, turn bitter, and no longer blessings.
But in the lettuce, there is an insight. Freedom can only really be appreciated when it is rooted in slavery. We who are born free often take our freedom for granted; we do not wake up each morning and say to ourselves, “I am free! How wonderful!” Yet someone who has been in slavery would do exactly this. So it was when our ancestors left Egypt. The bitterness of slavery was pungently familiar to their tongue!
And this leads us to the other bitter herb commonly used on the Seder plate. The one we have on our plate today. Horseradish.
I was looking for graphics of the bitter herbs online and I kept coming upon images of children who had clearly just tasted the bitter herbs – they had hilariously scrunched up faces, reminding me of the old beer campaign from the 90’s – the “bitter beer face.” It reminded me of my own father’s tales of getting city kids to taste uncured olives, or unripe persimmons. No one who has ever tasted these would do it again voluntarily! One’s whole face puckers in acidic bitterness! The first sensation, of horseradish can certainly be a powerful experience. It is why I think horseradish may be more appropriate to the plate than lettuce. It needs to be powerful enough to bring tears to our eyes – even for those who have tasted it before. Horseradish will do that ! The point of Passover is to teach our children the story, to give our children and generations to come, the EXPERIENCE of the bitterness of slavery. Horseradish will do it. Perhaps we want to save our children the experience by giving them lettuce and making in a metaphor. But I think that misses the point. The purpose of Passover is to experience, with our ancestors, the pain of slavery and the lusciousness of freedom.
What would the bitter herbs mean to the disciples? The bitter herbs would be a very real reminder of the oppression in which they now lived under the Roman empire. While they had much more freedom than their slave ancestors, they would have a taste of living under someone else’s thumb. The bitter herbs may even have been what pushed Judas over the edge! Life as he had come to know it was so bitter that it was blindingly intolerable. He could not see any way out, and he desperately could not live another day without a way out of the slavery of his people.
Perhaps for some of us, we have had moments in our lives of betrayal. Perhaps we have turned our back on a friend, or perhaps one we loved shot us pain like a dagger. What pushes us to this? Perhaps the overwhelming desperation and bitterness of the slavery we experience. Can you see that in your own story? Might that person who betrayed you have been equally caught in pain and desperation?
What are the bitter herbs for us? We just went through Ash Wednesday. We heard the words spoken to us, “Remember that you are dust, to dust you shall return.” In my early years of ministry, I thought these words were too hard and I changed them. How could we in a worship service of the church call people to confront so graphically their own death? It made no sense. But now, after many stories of betrayal and death, I have come to peace with the fact that death, sorrow and suffering are part of all our lives. And it is only in the remembering, in the naming, that we can begin to have them redeemed.
The ashes, the bitter herbs, allow us the holy moment of confronting our own brokenness and mortality. We live in a world where we are enslaved – to one thing or another – and where we enslave others, whether we intend to or not. And so I leave us with Paul’s desperate confession:
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:21-25)
Through Jesus Christ comes freedom and life!
From the Passover Haggadah: With the household of Israel, our elders and young ones, linking and bonding the past with the future, we heed once again the divine call to service. Living our story that is told for all peoples, whose shining conclusion is yet to unfold.