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My friend and colleague Daniel Meeter retired at the beginning of July. Back in May, speaking at a Reformed Church Center event, he likened our current condition of quarantine and social distancing to Israel’s Exodus journey, especially in the way that some things needed to be provisional.
Well, now the Revised Common Lectionary is bringing us the Exodus story amidst this ongoing pandemic. And I am grateful to be able to preach these myself. Today and for the next few Sundays, I get to share here on The Twelve the reflections that wander into a different direction from my sermons.
The lectionary deposits us in Exodus 12, with God’s instruction for the first Passover meal. If you have ever taken part in a Seder, you know that it is a rather long affair, and terribly detailed. Every course, every condiment, has a meaning and a place in the story about the beginning of a new chapter for the children of Israel.
As I read the story, however, what strikes me is that this was, in many ways, an improvised event. God gave instructions, and, as the story was written down in retrospect, God was portrayed as having everything planned out and being explicit and clear in advance. But many of us have experienced a reality that was much less clear at the moment it was happening.
In the moment, we were looking around, grabbing things we needed.
Maybe we had a sheep handy, maybe a goat. Maybe we had a small family with more lamb than they could eat, and maybe the small family down the street didn’t have a lamb handy at all. Here were some bitter herbs that weren’t going to keep well on the journey and should be used up before we left.
It’s only when we look back that we see God’s hand in pulling all of this together, that we understand what God was telling us all along. No one had ever had death pass over them before, as far as they knew, and no one had ever before been released from slavery and sent back to someplace their ancestors had abandoned generations ago.
In this year of the pandemic, this is important for all of us to remember: none of us have ever done any of this before. God, looking at all of us from the perspective of eternity (where, according to CS Lewis in Mere Christianity, “Ten-thirty—and every other moment from the beginning of the world—is always Present”) and wanting us all to do well, shows us how to make things work with what we have.
God always has it in hand, even when we feel and look like we’re flying by the seat of our pants. We grab a laptop and a couple of I-phones, throw together a few quick connections and a Zoom account or a Facebook livestream. Before we know it, we’re keeping our congregation’s worship life alive in quarantine. We have no more idea what we are doing than Moses and the Hebrews did in Goshen, but, someday, somehow, we will recognize the hand of God in this more clearly.
In the musical 1776, Ben Franklin is given the chance to say that “Revolutions . . . come into this world like bastard children — half improvised and half compromised.” The Hebrews, putting together that first Passover meal with whatever they had, were improvising and compromising. To a certain extent, so was God, whose absolute sovereignty was limited by human free will, creating a new thing not ex nihilo — where anything is possible — but with what was on hand. There were things that would have to be perfected later, which was still Present for God, for whom the Exodus never ended.
Our pandemic response is just the latest turn in the journey, as we keep figuring it out. Yet, somewhere down the road, human nature being what it is, there will be improvisations and compromises that future generations will see as absolutely necessary, inviolable ingredients to an orthodox response.
So a moral of the story for us, from this perspective, is that we need to lighten up. We need to be easy on ourselves when we’re not absolutely sure we are doing the right thing. We need to be easy on one another as we try new ideas on the fly. And we need to remember: while this may be a “perpetual ordinance,” as we read in Exodus, maybe it’s just dinner on the fly with a side of boundless grace.