Summer Sermon Series: Communion–The Backstory

Exodus 12:21-28   Passover Roots: This summer we will spend five weeks together exploring the roots of our communion practices. Where did they originate? How has the Lord’s Supper been celebrated over the years? How is it celebrated today in various cultures around the world? And what difference does sharing this meal make in our lives today?
We begin this morning with our Passover roots. Communion, or the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper, is rooted in the Jewish Passover. Jesus took the Passover celebration and gave it new meaning for his followers going forward when he observed the traditional meal with his disciples on the night before he died. So, let’s dig back a bit. What were they observing in the first place?
By the time Jesus sat at that meal in the Jerusalem room prepared for the Passover by his disciples, the Passover had been an annual celebration for centuries. It was a part of their culture, their identity as a people belonging to God. Passover was an annual remembrance of the haste of leaving Egypt, the escape from the clutches of an oppressive power and the mighty hand of God’s deliverance creating freedom and a new life. Passover is Freedom Day for the Jewish people, celebrated in a very specific way to keep it as a special time, a holy time, a time set apart from everyday activity. I like the words from a book by Rabbi Leon Klenicki: “There is a time when time stands still, motionless. There is a time in religious life when time becomes eternal, beyond recount, beyond hour divisions. There is a time when we leave the present to go back to a memory, feeling and prayer to the past, to a past that is the very ground of our being. There is a time when we return to sources. Such a time is Passover.”
Every time the Passover is observed, the story is re-told, and the next generations are exposed to the roots of the miraculous exodus orchestrated by God on behalf of the people of Israel. It is the story of freedom, the story of deliverance, the story that our Jewish ancestors go back to again and again and again as a reminder of what has shaped them as a people belonging to God. It is at the roots of Jesus’ very identity as a Jew. Therefore, it is at the roots of our Christian identity as well.
This morning we heard the freedom story as told in Exodus, the primary place to find the story in the Old Testament. In this one historical book, the people being brought out of Egypt is mentioned 53 times! But this is not a story found in one part of the Bible only. It is important to remember that salvation from slavery is a theme which runs throughout the Old Testament, with the exodus from Egypt being an underlying theme for the shaping of the identity of this people of Israel. The story is told and retold through the Old Testament, with 130 more references to bringing the people out of Egypt beyond the book of Exodus. Eight of the Old Testament prophets reminded the people that it was God who brought them out of Egypt, that it was God on whom they could depend as their source of salvation.
Deliverance from slavery created a reliance on God as the freedom bringer. It was something that could not be forgotten and was cemented in the minds of the Jewish people from earliest times. “You shall observe this rite as a perpetual ordinance for you and your children.” God expected them to remember, to observe the Passover, marking the night when God broke open Pharaoh’s stone-cold heart. It was the night when the first born of every Egyptian family was killed as the angel of death visited homes, flocks and even the palace of the Pharaoh himself. The people of Israel were spared because they had painted their door frames with the blood of the lamb prepared for the family and their neighbors to eat. Part of the instruction was that if your family was too small to consume all of the meat, they were expected to go in together with a neighbor family, sharing the cooking responsibilities and sharing the eating. The bread would not have time to rise, as they had to plan to eat on the run. I think of the way we often grab a quick bite in between activities, shoveling food in our mouths to tide us over… They had to be ready to go, suitcases packed and food prepared for desert traveling. This was the last straw for Pharaoh. The death of his own son and the first-born sons throughout Egypt was too much for him to bear. These people had to go. Pharaoh could not win this battle with God. God had won.
The people of Israel left their oppressors with pockets full of Egyptian jewelry and shouts of “good riddance” from a nation in mourning. They carried their belongings, shepherded their livestock and ate unleavened bread for the journey. It was not going to be an easy road for them, but the bottom line was that God had won. They were free. This is what the Passover meal marks every time it is observed. It is a connection to the past through memory and prayer. As Rabbi K. said, Passover is a time when time stands still for a people who knew what it was like to live in an oppressed state, a people who learned the hard way how to trust in God and depend on God for their very sustenance. It was important to pass on the story. It was important for the young child to ask each year: What do you mean by this observance? What makes this night special? Why do we eat the bread with out leaven, or yeast? Why do we drink the cup together? Passover traditions help with making it a special day.
This past week we celebrated our nation’s independence from Great Britain in 1776. It is technically the US freedom day. We have our traditions around that day which very often include fireworks displays, hot dogs on the grill, and flying the American flag. Even our 19 month old grandson wore a red white and blue bathing suit to the beach that day! Every year we celebrate we are passing on the traditions to the next generations, remembering the past with special music and community activities.
A couple of weeks earlier was another Freedom Day that does not get the same fanfare. It marks the final official end of the practice of slavery in this nation on June 19, 1865, when the official word finally reached Texas to let slaveholders and slaves know of the required freedom for all slaves as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Lincoln 2.5 years earlier! The orders read by the Union Army’s Major General Grange were these: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.” Texas was isolated geographically from the battlegrounds of the civil war, and although it was a part of the Confederacy, it did not participate at the level of other southern states. There is disagreement as to what caused the long lag in getting the word out to Texas, but after the war was over, the official pronouncement brought great rejoicing and celebrating among the African-American community in Texas. The day became known as Juneteenth, or Freedom Day or Emancipation Day, celebrated annually as a way to remember the beginning of freedom among a previously enslaved population. Texas finally established Juneteenth as a state holiday in 1980, and more and more parts of the country have been observing celebrations of African American heritage on that day. Libraries, universities and other groups plan special events to mark Freedom Day each year in the Baltimore area as well.
Perhaps that is the best way to remember the role Passover plays in the life of our Jewish ancestors. It is Freedom Day, a day worth remembering, marking and setting aside as special. As you come to the table today, we will pull from some of our Jewish traditions in our communion celebration. This morning as we come to the communion table, we will bring some of the Jewish practices with us. We will remember the past days of slavery and pray for an end to all kinds of oppression. We will open the doors of the sanctuary to welcome the hungry of body and spirit to gather at the table. We will hear the questions about our tradition from the mouth of a child: “Why is this meal so special? Why do we eat bread and drink the cup? Why do we share this meal with our church family?” We will remember and give thanks for Freedom Days of all kinds, for all peoples in all places. I will meet you at the table!

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