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I have always loved the exodus story despite its contradictions. Why did God have to harden Pharaohs heart and make it so hard to let the Hebrews go? And why did God have to make it so gruesome at the end, with killing all the Egyptian first borns while smearing the blood of dead lambs on the Jewish door posts to protect them? And why did the Jew wander for 40 years around the desert? Oh, right because like all men, Moses couldn’t stop and ask for directions. Passover is a time of new creation, a time of remembering the struggle of our past and being delivered into a new land. How many of us here long to be renewed, to a new you, a new creation and a new land of love and opportunity? I remember with heartache my own failures, when I lost my marriage, my first business, and I believe for a time, my sanity. My best friend was a bartender. I was not at all worthy of being around. Then a friend of mine, a truck driver invited me to travel with him on his 18 wheeler for a few days. As we headed across the open road I could feel the weight of my misery growing lighter. He was a Christian, in the best sense of the word, a recovering alcoholic, and a man who wore his sorrow on his face. He told me as the miles fell under our wheels of such desperate times as driving his rig blind drunken down the Rockies hoping he would die. Until the day he almost did. His brakes gave out and the runaway ramp was miles away. As the adrenaline pumped into his body he prayed. God, spare me this and I will give my life over to love. Somehow he managed to get to the runaway ramp but he was doing over 80 miles an hour with 60,000 pounds at his back. He hit the ramp fishtailed in the gravel and stopped inches before the end. That runaway ramp proved to be his promised land. He was good to his promise, got sober, fell in love, married, had four kids and went looking for sorry cases like me to help them create a new life. He would tell me often that the exodus story was his favorite, a reluctant prophet Moses once a prince of Egypt who led his people out of bondage. Who doesn’t need to be led from bondage he asked me. With his help I began to free myself from the misery, sell the business, move back east, meet Francis, fall in love have a bunch of kids and follow my call to ministry.
What makes us creative enough to find the promised land? It starts with a willingness to be open to the possibility. Bob would remind me of another Hebrew story about a prophet who preceded Moses; Abraham: ”the Lord appeared to Abraham as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men approaching. When he saw them he ran up to them and bowed down to them and said ‘my lord, if I find favor with you do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought to you and wash your feet and rest….Let me bring a little bread’ and Abraham turned to Sarah and said ‘bring some bread’ and he took a calf and gave it to be prepared…and he threw open all the sides of the tent to welcome his guests…..and the three said to Abraham ‘Where is your wife Sarah?…for I will return to you in due season and your wife will bear a son…’ (Genesis 18:1-10)
The story taken from the larger context of Abraham and Sarah’s journey to the Promised Land is celebrated, most appropriately by all the religions of the West. In it Abraham and his family have left their lands in the East and traveled at God’s promise to a new land which they are to be shown only after they leave. Once there, Abraham struggles to imagine himself as the father of nations that his God had promised him to be. He struggles because Sarah his wife, is unable to conceive. But Sarah, being inventive and responsible, implores her husband to lay with Hagar her Egyptian Maid servant, a normally accepted practice. Hagar bears a son, the first son, Ishmael, he who hears God, who is born a wild man. Jealous now, Sarah sends Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness to die, but God saves them and they go off to found the great tribes of the Arabs, later to become the nations of Islam.
Alone once again, Sarah and Abraham have all but giving up hope that they will see any children. Until this encounter at the tent. Here God, in the form of three strangers is welcomed by Abraham and giving sustenance. Abraham had no idea who these people were, but welcomed they simply because they were in need, throwing open the sides of the tent in a sign of generosity and hope. The opening of the tent is a powerful metaphor of welcome and creation much like leaving our own doors ajar here at our church. For his unconditional love, God grants Sarah her first child, Abrahams second, even though they are “withered and old”. Their son, Isaac, means to laugh. Such was the joy of their new gift. Ironically, the people of Abraham would feel estrangement becoming the Jews and the Christians in the line of Isaac and his son Jacob and the Muslims in the line of Ishmael. Sadly, the story of Abraham’s creative hospitality is lost in the modern age. Here was the great father of all three mono-theistic faiths who through simple faith kept to his promises and welcomed the broken, who would be seen by all three as their common ancestor, but who now is fought over like some intellectual property right even today. In a climate of war and terrorism and mistrust in the Middle East and elsewhere, we have forgotten our common heritage. I believe that, in the long run it will be that remembering of Abraham that will help us to reclaim peace again. In our own lives it certainly was Abraham that reminds us that in order to find the promised land we need to welcome the stranger into our lives, and from there creation happens.
But the message today also speaks of another great truth- that of acceptance for even those who are strange among us. We are dedicated to proposition, that, like Abraham, we must open our tent to the world of our own that are hungry and thirsty and lost. Not because they may be God in disguise – although in the sense that each of us is divine this is true, as Jesus reminds us “this you do for the least of these you do for me” – but rather, because we are human. We all share in that common root. While I am aware, for instance, of the great need to work towards economic justice so that homeless will cease to be a problem in our community, I am all too aware that those who are homeless can’t wait for that justice. We need, indeed, we demand from ourselves hospitality for the strangers among us, the broken and the cold and the hungry. I was reminded of Abraham’s tent, open to welcome the stranger and the respect he gave those who he served. Those of you, perhaps you, who are in need of re-creation; water for your thirst and food for your hunger. You, among us, in need of loving hospitality. We commission these pastoral care chaplains today because they are servants of creation; called to a ministry of presence that welcomes the stranger and those sorrows that seem so strange, that we might Passover to a new tomorrow.
But there is an even greater meaning to Passover for us today and that is in the promise that openness gives all people especially in a world and nation torn by war and differing values. I have become ever mindful of those who would be most estranged from us. Those who immigrated to this new land, or those who have fought in wars on behalf of our land. We have not always been kind to our veterans. It is not their fault wars are fought, they are casualties just like us. Are we going to welcome those who are returning from this war back home to this promised land? What kind of a ministry can we provide to those veterans returning to our area who have seen the horror of war? Will we, a liberal religious congregation or a religion of liberals, open our hearts to these deeply wounded people even as we ourselves are, for the most part, against this war? Can we do it? In time I hope to be able to answer yes.
The promise of Passover is that hospitality is not beyond the reach of any who would try to throw open the walls of suspicion and hatred. Simply saying we are here and all people are welcome is not enough. Abraham invited his guests within. Are we inviting those we know?
How hard is it to welcome those who are different than us? The challenge I have for all of you this month is to invite one person, especially someone who you think unlikely to be among us, to church. Do you know how often, on average, a UU invites someone they know to church? 21 years! Its time to bring that down a bit, especially to welcome the stranger into our midst. The point is not whose side are you on but rather what are the larger moral values we all can embrace. This fall we will launch a new adult enrichment series “Crossing Borders” an attempt to engage with those who are strange to us. Through a generous donation we will be welcoming a series of nationally known speakers to speak here and invite our community in. We can be creative about changing the story. Like our common ancestors Abraham and Sarah, Moses we too, all share in the values of decency and equity and justice and compassion and yes, hospitality. No one religion can or should hold those values hostage to a candidate or a political party. In the desert of our strife, the heat of hatred and suspicion, we are all called to welcome the stranger and the hungry and make real our call to justice. We are all called to create a new land.
Last night I returned from our 8th grade coa trip to Boston which we have been doing each year for 34 years. Friday night about sundown just before dinner – just about the time the first Passover candle would be lighted – we walked through the Holocaust Memorial near Feuniel Hall. The memorial is six glass towers, representing the six Nazi death camps, into and through you walk, beside the powerful stories you look closely at the glass, and, reaching to the very top are six digit numbers, each taken from the Nazi records of the 11 million people they murdered, each number, a name, a life. The kids were all very quiet. In our moment of silence following the tour, I thought about how these innocent people were never able to reach the promised land of their ancestors. I realized it was up to those kids to find creative ways to ensure another holocaust never happens again. May 4th is Holocaust Remembrance Day. The day we remember the quintessential horror that comes from the very worst in humanity. Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Unitarian Universalism at their best, remember that we can move beyond our differences to the essential unity within us all. We give our time and talent and treasure, to change ourselves, true. But more importantly to create a better world.
Perhaps we are all a little like those Hebrew prophets, at first reluctant, who come through time to stand for the promise that all three faiths could sometime return to their places in the great tent of humanity, its sides open to the light of love and the winds of change blowing away the fear of what we have yet to know. Who will we invite into our tent? And how shall we welcome them? These are vital questions for us all. I have every faith that we will surpass our highest expectations. Amen.