At Jewish Passover Seders there is a point in the meal called the Mah Nishtanah, or the four questions. The youngest child at the table asks four questions on focusing on, “Why is this night different than other nights?” The adults at the table answer the child’s questions in turn, and in doing so recount the story of the Jewish people as told in the book of Exodus.
I think about that tradition when I read the book of Exodus, from where our passage from today comes. I love the idea of remembering as a body what happened before, and teaching it, the good and the bad, but especially the triumph of the good over the bad, hope over pain. It’s something the Jewish tradition has always done remarkably well, and it’s something we could learn from in our own tradition.
Whenever i read the book of Exodus, i remember that tradition. The story we read today is a familiar one. It takes place not long after the Passover and the fleeing of Egypt for something better. The people are not long removed from their lives as slaves and they know that they are now being pursued. They know that they could go back to a life of pain and no hope. And they look behind them and see the Pharoah’s army approaching. And they look in front of them and see the Red Sea. And at first glance everything looks very bad.
But you know the story. You know what happens next as surely as the adults who answer a child’s questions at the Passover table. You know that Moses picked up his staff, and stretched out his hands, and the waters rolled back, and the people were saved. It’s one of the first stories many of us learn from the Bible. Even though neither we nor anyone we knew was there, it’s a part of our memory. And it’s a part of our hope.
I’ve been thinking about memory and hope a lot this week. Memory as we approached today, the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Hope as we as a community seek to rebuild. And I’ve been reminded again and again that memory and hope are often two sides of the same coin.
But sometimes we get a little weary of remembering things. It starts to feel like we are dragging around a heavy weight all the time. As we’ve approached this anniversary I’ve seen the commercials for program after program about 9/11. It’s pretty amazing how low some stations have sunk in their quest to capitalize on this anniversary. It was hard enough the first time, and this time it’s enough to make me want to turn off the tv and not pick up a newspaper.
I even wondered whether or not to preach about it this morning. Especially here as we struggle in our communities to come to terms with what happened two weeks ago and what it will mean for us next. Do we really need another reminder of that day?
But as I thought about it, I realized that to not say anything about it here, in this place where we lift up every Sunday the divine memory of what God has done, is to cede the memory of what happened ten years ago, and even what happened two weeks ago, is to abandon our memories to other places. Our memory of the events become shaped not by the Gospel and God’s love, but by CNN and MSNBC and Fox News. They deserve more that that.
When the child asks at the Seder table why this night is different from all others, why the food is dipped into salt water first, they are told it is meant to symbolize the bitterness of the tears cried in Egypt. The past, the past before the Red Sea rolled back and freedom was assured, is not forgotten.
Today may feel a little like a day where you remember, “Why this day is unlike other days” and all you can taste are bitter tears.
And today may be a day when you also feel uncertain. It may be a day where you are standing at the shore, looking out at an obstacle you can’t cross, and feeling a threat approaching not far behind. And you may be wondering, “What am I going to do now?”
I’d like to tell you that this is the day that the sea is going to part, and you are going to walk right through with safe passage to the other shore. I’d like to tell you the memory of bitter tears is going to be washed away in that water, along with all that is trying to drag you down. If life were a movie, that’s how this would go.
But sometimes movies get it wrong. And in this case they’re not nearly good enough.
I know I’ve told you the story before about hearing Bishop Gene Robinson speak about the parting of the Red Sea. It was not long after he had gone through a trying time in his own life. There had, I’m sure, been plenty of tears and a search for hope. He was a man who could understand standing at the shore and feeling like there was no way across.
What I loved about the talk that day was that he didn’t make this story easy. In fact, he made it harder. And in doing so, he made it even better.
Bishop Robinson said that the parting of the Red Sea was probably nothing like what we saw in the movies. The waves didn’t roll back and the way across wasn’t clear and safe. It probably wasn’t like that at all.
Instead, it was more like this: the waves rolled back just enough that the people of Israel could put their feet on safe ground. And then they rolled back just enough that they could take another step. And then another. And then slowly, by faith, they made it across to safety. They did what they never thought possible.
The reality of life is a lot more like that than it is like the movies. God gives us enough that we know where to take the next step. And when we take that step, no matter how high the odds are, no matter how overwhelming the journey may seem, we get enough room to make the next. We are rarely shown the whole journey at once. But we are often shown exactly what we need to make the next step there.
Ten years ago we stood at the river banks and we wondered what happened next. Our safety and serenity had been taken away from us. Rebuilding felt impossible. We wondered if anything would ever feel normal again. We were afraid.
The first day I saw an airplane flying again, the first time I saw a baseball game, I knew that life, no matter how changed, was still good. And we would be shown a way across the scary, deep unknown, step by step. But I also knew, just like those children at the Seder table knew, I would, and should, never forget. I would never forget what happened, and I would never forget what God did next.
Ten years from now, you may well be back in church, remembering what happened in this place just a few weeks ago. I can’t tell you what you will be like then, what this church will be like then, or what the world will be like then. We have too many steps to take between now and then, and the shore is not yet in sight.
But I do know this. God will not lead us this far, and then abandon us. God, the same God who became human and suffered with us, did not allow pain and hatred and destruction to be the last word. Instead, God transformed it into something new. Something that could resurrect us all.
At the Seder, after the food is dipped in something salty, it is then dipped into something sweet. The sweet signifies what God has down to transform what was once so bitter. The meal is not complete without both the bitter, and the sweet. The memory, and the hope. And so it is with us as well.
Look behind you, and never forget. The only way what’s behind you can hurt you is if you refuse to remember. Look in front of you, at that sea that looks impossible to cross, and hope. Because it’s only by hope that you can begin to do what God is calling you to next. And then, step out on memory and hope. Put your feet down in new places. And look around to see where God rolls back the sea next. And then remember your last impossible step, and make another. Amen.