“Angel of Death”

There is a story about a Chinese woman whose only son has died. She goes to see the Holy Man in her village and she begs him, “What can I do to bring my son back? What prayers can I pray, what sacrifices can I make?” The Holy Man sends her to get a mustard seeds from a home that has never known despair, telling her that the seeds will be used to drive her sorrow away. This morning’s reading from the 12th chapter of Exodus is the well-known story of Passover and Liberation but even in its familiarity it is a challenge to understand. At least it is for me.

The story Kristen told a few minutes ago was about 300 words but, in its original form, the Passover and Liberation story is massive in size—more than 1300 words—and covering six major biblical themes; each of those themes contains three to five more sub-themes that each deserve a sermon of their own.

The famous theologian George Burns once said that the secret to a good sermon is to have a great beginning and a powerful ending and for those two to be as close together as possible. If you don’t know who George Burns was, he was God. No, really! And if you want to know more about him just ask one of the people around you who are giggling. Throughout our time together I ask you to think about this question: If you believe in a God, what God do you believe in?

Let’s dive into the deep end. Today’s Exodus reading is full of death. For that reason it is a story that can be very difficult to talk about. Death, by itself, is a struggle to understand. Here death is an enigma at best, and at worst caused by an Old Testament God of vengeance. In the story, death comes at the hand of God in the form of a super-plague. The Egyptians are eviscerated of their sons. Death comes like a nightmare in the middle of the night and it’s a gruesome and bloody scene. No Egyptian home was spared. Neither rich nor poor. Neither high nor low. Neither guilty nor innocent.

I was sitting in my supervisor’s office when her phone rang and she handed me the receiver. Doctor someone-or-other was trying to reach me. When I called back, the medical assistant asked if I knew where my brother was. My brother, Victor, had an appointment earlier that day but he was a no-show. My brother was diligent about making his appointments and when they couldn’t reach Vic they became worried. I called Vic’s supervisor, George; he hadn’t heard from Vic either and George was also worried. Next, I dialed Vic’s home phone but the phone just rang and rang. By the time I got home it was pouring rain outside. I called Vic’s friends, his job and the doctor again. I called Vic; again, nothing.

By the time I rode my bicycle to his apartment, I was drenched and the apartment door key Vic had given me didn’t work. This was1997 so I rode to the payphone in the McDonald’s parking lot. Another round of calls to friends, doctor, job, and to Vic. Nothing. The last call I made was to the police who said they would meet me at the apartment on Wallen Street in Rogers Park in Chicago. Vic lived on the second floor of his building so the police asked the fire department to send a ladder. The firefighters climbed up and I watched them slide open and crawl through Vic’s dining room window. Moments later I could hear them coming down the creaky wooden stairs. The firefighters didn’t say a word as they walked past the police officer and me. They didn’t have to; the looks on their faces told me Vic had died.

In today’s story, God promised the Hebrews that if they prepared themselves and obeyed God’s rituals—sacrificing a goat, placing goat’s blood over their doors, eating only unleavened bread—they would be spared from the Angel of Death, or “passed over.” But to the Egyptians, God was the Angel of Death.

This is not the New Testament God we’re accustomed to. Only an evil God kills the son of a helpless prisoner, a prisoner with whom we can identify. At least, this is the perspective that the biblical writers would lead us to believe. Here we need reminding that it was Pharaoh’s selfishness and cruelty and that caused all of this. Nine times Pharaoh had been warned. His intransigence called for an extreme response in order for God to accomplish the liberation. But it did not have to be this way. And history is full of examples for us of how liberation always costs lives. Even when God is at the helm. In the messy movement towards liberation, it’s hard to know what our responsibility is. Where are we to stand and what are we supposed to do in the midst of it?

Last Tuesday I sat in an immigration courtroom at the Whipple Federal Building. Fernando had been to court a few times before and that day he was scheduled for a final hearing on his asylum petition. But he hadn’t completed the application because he couldn’t understand the form, which is more than a dozen pages and filled with legalese. And he couldn’t afford to hire an attorney to help him file it.

This is the system that we created to help people like Fernando. But this system has become an Angel of Death, sending people to countries where they will be harmed or killed. The absurdity is that Fernando came here to escape that very harm and fear of death. He may never feel liberated.

Oppressors never willingly give up their power. But revolutionary liberation does happen—to others and to us. Profound personal growth can take place in the midst of our tragedy, loss and hardship. But the text reminds us that we have to prepare for that transformation. Along with the rituals, the text says this: “You are to be dressed for travel, with your sandals on, your feet and your walking stick in your hand.”

What God do you believe in and what do you need to do to prepare for liberation?

Like Aaron and Moses, the preparation begins with an acceptance that we are of God and that we are ourselves able to become a people of liberation. This is part of a poem by Martin Espada:

This is the year that those
who swim the border’s undertow
and shiver in boxcars
are greeted with trumpets and drums
at the first railroad crossing
on the other side;

this is the year that the hands
pulling tomatoes from the vine
uproot the deed to the earth that sprouts
the vine,
the hands canning tomatoes
are named in the will
that owns the bedlam of the cannery;

If the text does nothing else, today it clarifies that the work of liberation is not clean and peaceful and that even when God makes changes there are complexities beyond our comprehension. It took 430 years for the Israelites to be freed.

The Chinese woman whose son has died could find no mustard seed from a home that has never known despair. Such a home doesn’t exist. Every house has known sadness but we are comforted in knowing that we are of God, that we are not alone, and that God is with us. This brings us back to the question of what God you believe in.

We conclude as we began, with a sacred text. This from Psalm 63, verses 1-8 which reads:

You, God, are my God, I seek you eagerly, I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you, in a parched land where there is no water. I have seen you in the sanctuary and I have seen your power and your glory. Your love is better than life and I will praise and worship you. I will praise you as long as I live, and in your name I will lift up my hands. I will be fully satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing my mouth will praise you. On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the night. Because you are my help, I sing in the shadow of your caress. I cling to you; your hand upholds me.

Amen.