St Bride's: Sermons

The lessons of the years

Exodus 12: 1-14

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12 And the Lord spake unto Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt saying,

This month shall be unto you the beginning of months: it shall be the first month of the year to you.

Speak ye unto all the congregation of Israel, saying, In the tenth day of this month they shall take to them every man a lamb, according to the house of their fathers, a lamb for an house:

And if the household be too little for the lamb, let him and his neighbour next unto his house take it according to the number of the souls; every man according to his eating shall make your count for the lamb.

Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male of the first year: ye shall take it out from the sheep, or from the goats:

And ye shall keep it up until the fourteenth day of the same month: and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it in the evening.

And they shall take of the blood, and strike it on the two side posts and on the upper door post of the houses, wherein they shall eat it.

And they shall eat the flesh in that night, roast with fire, and unleavened bread; and with bitter herbs they shall eat it.

Eat not of it raw, nor sodden at all with water, but roast with fire; his head with his legs, and with the purtenance thereof.

10 And ye shall let nothing of it remain until the morning; and that which remaineth of it until the morning ye shall burn with fire.

11 And thus shall ye eat it; with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and ye shall eat it in haste: it is the Lord's passover.

12 For I will pass through the land of Egypt this night, and will smite all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the Lord.

13 And the blood shall be to you for a token upon the houses where ye are: and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and the plague shall not be upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt.

14 And this day shall be unto you for a memorial; and ye shall keep it a feast to the Lord throughout your generations; ye shall keep it a feast by an ordinance for ever.

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As some of you will be aware, I have recently returned from a week in Berlin.  It was my second visit to that extraordinary, fascinating and complex city, where everywhere you look you encounter layer upon layer of story; layer upon layer of both tragedy and hope; the very best and the very worst of which human beings are capable.  It is quite unlike anywhere else that I have ever visited.

And this is nowhere more apparent than in those places where Berlin does its remembering - particularly in relation to the horrific events of the Second World War and the subsequent division both of east and west Germany, and of the city of Berlin itself.

At one end of the Tiergarten, near the Brandenburg Gate, there are three very different, but equally striking memorials to some of the most horrific events of World War II: the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe; the memorial to the Sinti and Roma people who died in the concentration camps; and the memorial to those who were persecuted and murdered under the Nazi regime because they were gay and lesbian. 

And there are other memorials, too.  Our hotel was situated just inside what was formerly East Berlin.  And just around the corner from us was another monument which affected me very profoundly.  It is situated within a section of the Berlin wall that is not only still standing, but where the central 'death strip' - the no-mans land between either side of the wall - has been preserved.  In the middle of the death strip is a memorial to around 140 of those people who were killed in their attempt to cross from East to West Berlin - although the total death toll is said to have been considerably higher than that. 

The memorial takes the form of a wall itself: above each of the names that is recorded is a small recess which, in almost every case, contains a black and white photograph of the person commemorated.  Underneath several of these photographs fresh flowers had been laid: these individuals are still remembered by their friends and family members.  It brought home to me how very recent these events were: and, of course, all of these people died, or were killed, within my own lifetime.

And not all those who lost their lives attempting to cross to the West were enterprising young men.  Far from it.  Ida Siekmann was a 58 year old woman, whose home was right on the boundary between East and West Berlin: her apartment block was in the East, but the street on which it was located was in the West.  In August 1961, residents of her street found that their front doors were being systematically nailed up or walled in.  On 21st August, Ida was terrified when barricades were erected outside her own home.  As a woman living alone, she was now completely cut off from all of her friends and relatives.  So she threw her bedding and a few possessions out of the window of her third floor apartment and jumped.  She died of her injuries.  She was the same age that I am now.  But the tragedy of her individual death will never be forgotten, as long as that extraordinary memorial, and others like it, are still present.

As a city, Berlin has recognised its need both to confront the horrors of its past, and to do its remembering, however painful that is - and to do so in a very visible way.  Because unless we remember, we cannot learn.

Our first reading this morning, from the Book of Exodus, is also about a community doing its remembering: this time the ancient Israelites.  We heard how they were given instructions about how to commemorate the Passover - and also charged to keep this commemoration every year so that future generations would never be allowed to forget, or to lose touch with, that central event that had so defined that people and its history: encapsulating both the horror of their years of slavery in Egypt, and their miraculous liberation from enslavement, by the God who released them from their chains and called them to freedom in the Promised Land.  Which is, of course, why the observance of the Passover - Pesach - is still so integral and defining to the life of the Jewish community.

I have my own copy of a modern Passover Haggadah (service book) which includes some extraordinary reflections and prayers, including these particularly memorable and heartfelt words:

We were slaves in Egypt and Kiev, we were foreigners in Babylon and Berlin.

We were outsiders and wanderers in Spain and Poland and France.

We looked at the citizens of those lands with the dark, pleading eyes of the alien.

Our hearts beat the hesitant beat of men without rights, fearful and uncertain.

We pray Thee, help us to remember the heart of the stranger,

                 when we walk in freedom.

Help us to be fair and upright in all our dealings with every man.

O burn and brand the lesson of all the years and all the lands in our hearts.

Lord, make us, forever, strangers to discrimination and injustice.

 O burn and brand the lesson of all the years and all the lands in our hearts.

Lord, make us, forever, strangers to discrimination and injustice.

 

When we, as a Christian community, meet together Sunday by Sunday to share in the Eucharist, we too are doing our own remembering; we, too, are connecting our story with the story of Christ in a profound and visceral way as we begin by revisiting the story of the Last Supper.  But then, moving beyond simply remembering, we also participate: we take that story into ourselves, into the very depths of our being, by sharing in the bread and wine physically: at the same time, at a spiritual level we thereby take the sacrificial death of Christ, and his promise of liberation and new life and new hope and transformation into our very selves and we are fed by it, and by God's presence within us.  It does not matter who we are or where we are on our journeys of faith - the invitation from Christ, which echoes down the centuries, is: 'Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you.'

On a number of occasions over the years I have heard non-churchgoers say (usually with an air of indignation) - 'You don't have to go to church to be a Christian.'  Although in fact, more often than not, upon further investigation I have discovered that what they really mean is: 'You don't have to go to church to be a good person.'  Which is something altogether different. 

You see, the Christian faith is not about being good.  The Christian faith is not about being good!  The Christian faith is about being loved - and then recognising the true implications of what that means for how we must live - which is very different indeed.

 And it seems to me that this provides the key to our other two readings this morning, both of which illustrate the point that you cannot live out the Christian faith in splendid isolation - because the Christian faith is about love, and love is only meaningful in relationship.  Hence, St Paul, in our reading from the letter to the Romans says: 'To love one another is to fulfil the law'.  And in our Gospel reading, Jesus says: 'Where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them.'

Because in saying this Jesus does not mean that unless there is a minimum of two or three people around, he isn't prepared to put in an appearance - but rather, he draws our attention to the fact that the place where we encounter the Risen and Ascended Lord is above all in community; in relationship; because God is love.  And those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.

We are here today both to do our remembering - to reconnect with the story of our faith, as we do here each Sunday morning - but also to discover anew what it means to live out that story today, as we are transformed, not only by God's love in itself but also (if we are doing it right) by our interactions one with another.  But the remembering is the starting point - because if we cannot remember, we cannot learn, and if we cannot learn we are lost.

O burn and brand the lesson of all the years and all the lands in our hearts.

Lord, make us, forever, strangers to discrimination and injustice.

 

Amen

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