Sermon; Easter Vigil 2019
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
In my opinion the Easter Vigil is the best liturgy we have. Early on the first day of the week, when it is still dark, we gather to celebrate Christ's resurrection and victory over death. The new fire is kindled in the darkness. The Paschal candle is blessed and lighted. We process into the church behind that candle and the incense-filled thurible. The Exsultet is sung while the light of Christ fills the church. We hear the record of God's saving deeds in history. We renew our baptismal vows. The morning sun shines through the windows, and, at the right moment, “Alleluias” are shouted, bells are rung, and light fills the church. This is the best service we have.
So I want to go back to the first part of the Vigil.
This liturgy can include up to nine readings, plus the appointed psalms or canticles for those readings. I pare those nine down to four, otherwise we'd be here for a really long time. Of those nine readings, there is one that is required to be read every year, and that is the story of Israel's deliverance at the Red Sea. Every year we get the story of the fleeing Israelites being pursued by the Egyptians. Every year we see the Israelites caught between the sea and the army. Every year we get the waters parting and the Israelites crossing over to safety. Every year we get the Egyptian army being swallowed up and destroyed by the returning waters. And every year we get the image of dead Egyptians washing up onto shore the next morning.
And every year I wonder, “Why?”
Why on this day of celebrating Christ's victory over death, on this day of celebrating life, do we also celebrate and sing of horse and rider being hurled into the sea? On this day of celebrating life it seems counter-intuitive – or just plain wrong – to also celebrate the death of others, even if they are the enemy. This reading on this day has bothered me for years.
Adding to my struggles is an old story from the Talmud that says when the Israelites escaped through the sea to the other side and the Egyptians were drowned in the waters of the returning sea, God prevented the angels from celebrating the event because God was mourning the deaths of all those whom he had just killed. That paints a very different and sobering picture of the event.
But then I read an interesting piece about this event and how it ties to baptism. Which is something, believe it or not, I hadn't ever considered before.
And then I called up Rabbi Ari Plost from our local synagogue about this story and asked him whether he saw it as a factual event, a metaphor, or something else entirely. He responded with a very Jewish answer (which, by the way, sounded an awful lot like a good Episcopal answer). He basically said, “There was an Exodus like there was a Genesis. The rabbinical tradition asks us to focus on what the narrative means for us today while being appreciative of the blessings we've received in the past. And I am very aware that I need my own religious liberation story.”
So between my conversation with Rabbi Ari and the reading, I want to focus on this event as a baptismal story. And when I say that I don't mean to co-opt or Christianize this story that is so important to the Jews. But this story is also important to us, and we Christians can see it as a baptismal story without doing damage or harm to our Jewish brothers and sisters.
Think back to the baptismal liturgy we just participated in and the words of thanksgiving over the water:
“We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water. Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation. Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise. In it your Son Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life. We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.”
And think about some of the questions we answered as we renewed our baptismal vows:
“Do you reaffirm your renunciation of evil and renew your commitment to Jesus Christ?”
“Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?”
In the Exodus story the Israelites move from bondage to freedom. They move from death to life. They become a liberated people. They renounced evil and returned to the Lord. Our own baptism does much the same thing. We turn from the bondage of Satan to freedom in Christ. We move from death to life. We become a liberated people. We renounce evil and return to the Lord.
Add to this how the service began – in the dark . . . well, sort of this year. Yet it was the sanctified fire that drove away the darkness, much like the pillar of fire drove away the darkness and protected the Israelites. And like the cloud of God led the Israelites by day, we were led by a cloud of incense into this place.
So, yes, coming through the waters of the sea is a baptismal liturgy.
But is the story of the Exodus factually true? Going back to my conversation with Rabbi Ari, we are asked to focus on what the narrative means for us today. What does this story of the crossing of the sea mean for us today? How might this story reflect our own baptismal journey? And what do we do with all those dead Egyptians?
If this story is reflecting our own baptismal journey, then it becomes a metaphor. And if we can see it as a metaphor for our own baptism, then that makes it easier to come to grips with and understand the deaths of all those Egyptian soldiers.
So the Exodus story is a baptismal liturgy. From the new fire that drove out the darkness to following the pillar of smoke to the water in the font and our pledge to resist evil, our liturgy mirrors the events of the Exodus.
The Israelites were held in bondage by the evils of the world, just as we are held in bondage by the evils of the world. Pharaoh and his army represent any and all earthly desires that pull us away from God. They represent the worldly system that keeps people in bondage, whether physically, emotionally, financially, spiritually, or otherwise.
As the Pharaoh and his army told the Israelites that they were inferior, the world tells us that some people are inferiors than others, thereby contradicting the fact that all people were created in God's image. The Pharaoh and his army represent the worldly point of view that might makes right. Pharaoh and his army are symbols of the Golden Rule . . . he who has the gold makes the rules.
Pharaoh, his army, and the world are trying to keep us in bondage. They are explicitly in competition with God. And this is the system that we have come to see as normal; a system where might makes right; a system where some are inferior to others; a system where your financial status determines your worthiness as a human being. This is that from which the Israelites needed to escape. This is that from which we need to escape. Because this is the system that separates us from God.
That which held the Israelites captive was put to death when they crossed the sea. They were baptized in those waters and were given freedom and new life. That which tries to hold us captive is also put to death in the waters of our baptism, and through those waters we are given freedom and new life.
This is the movement of baptism. Baptism is what moves us from one side to the other, from Egypt to Promised Land, from captivity to freedom, from death to life and resurrection.
On this day we remember the Israelites looking back with joy at what they had escaped and looking forward to the promise of what was to come.
On this joyful Easter day let us look back at what the waters of baptism have drowned and let us look forward to what the waters of baptism are promising us. Let us celebrate freedom from captivity. Let us sing, “Horse and rider has he hurled into the sea.” Let us celebrate victory over death. Let us celebrate resurrection.
And just like the Israelites needed to learn how to live their new life on a daily basis, we will also need to learn how to live as disciples on a daily basis, because this is just the beginning. That new life for them began after crossing through the waters of the sea and looking back across those waters to discover an empty shore. That new life for us begins today after crossing through the waters of baptism and looking back to discover an empty tomb.
Welcome to Easter. Welcome to freedom. Welcome to resurrection.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!