Sunday 10 September 2017


Address given at Templederry, St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan on Sunday 10th September 2017, the 13th after Trinity.

70 years ago in 1947 British India was partitioned to form the new countries of India & Pakistan.
Murderous rioting left some 2 million people dead and prompted the greatest population transfer in human history, as the religiously mixed provinces of Punjab and Bengal were divided. Some 14 million Muslims fled to Pakistan, and 14 million Hindus and Sikhs fled to India, breaking up communities that had lived and worked peacefully beside each other for centuries.

You may have seen images, as I have, of the horrific violence that followed partition, and heard the stories of survivors, their children and grandchildren, shown recently on British TV. Of course, this is not the only example of ethnic cleansing within the living memory of many of us. They are examples of how men and women just like you and me can be infected with the virus of hatred for those who are different to us, which pushes them to do evil things – surely a manifestation of original sin.

These thoughts are prompted by today’s 1st reading from Exodus 12:1-14.
To understand it we need to put the reading in context, since as so often the good compilers of the lectionary have set only a small part of a much bigger story.

The Israelites had lived in Egypt for 430 years since the time of Joseph, and their numbers had grown to 600,000, we are told - though that may be exaggerated. Once welcomed in the time of Joseph, the Egyptians had come to resent them for being different. To reduce their numbers, Pharaoh – the Egyptian King - had decreed that their male babies should be killed – as nearly happened to Moses. Now a new Pharaoh is using them as slaves, forced labour on his great building projects.

Immediately before today’s reading, we hear how the Israelites prayed for God to relieve their suffering, and God ordained Moses and Aaron to lead them out of their slavery to a promised land ‘filled with milk and honey’. Pharaoh would not listen to Moses’ pleas to let the Israelites go. So God sent 9 successive plagues on Egypt, but still in the hardness of his heart Pharaoh would not let them go. Now God is preparing a 10th and final plague – the death of the first-born – after which Pharaoh will let them go.

In today’s reading we heard how God instructs Moses and Aaron to prepare the people to leave. Each family is to kill a lamb. They are to paint their doors with its blood, then roast and eat it hurriedly with unleavened bread and bitter herbs, all dressed and ready to go. During the night God will destroy the first-born of every human being and animal, except where the doors have been marked with blood. This is to be named the Passover, because God passed over the Israelites, and they are to celebrate the Passover as a festival for ever after.

After today’s reading we hear that God was as good as his word. He killed every first-born, but spared the Israelites. Pharaoh finally permitted the Israelites to leave, and they went carrying gold and silver and clothes given them by their Egyptian neighbours. Pharaoh changed his mind and sent an army after them, but his army was drowned in the Red Sea. The Israelites escaped into the wilderness of Sinai, where they wandered for 40 years, before finally entering the promised land of Canaan.

The story of the Passover and Exodus from Egypt is the great foundation myth of the Israelite people.
It was probably written down some 700 years after the Passover, based on memories passed down orally from generation to generation from the 15th-13th Century BC, as part of religious ceremonies.

As a result the Israelites came to see themselves as a people specially chosen and loved by the one all-powerful God, a God of justice who would protect them, so long as they kept to their side of the covenant he made with them through Moses.

But perhaps there was a darker side to the Passover too. Was it accompanied by intercommunal violence, like the partition of India? Could the reason for marking the doorways with blood be so that Israelite gangs bent on murder would not attack Israelite homes? Did the departing Israelites pillage their neighbours houses to steal the gold and silver and clothes they took away with them? It is impossible to know – there is just too little evidence – but it does not seem unlikely to me.

Whatever the truth of this, the Passover and Exodus played a critical role in forging the national identity of the Israelites as a distinct people, as they faced the hardships of the wilderness, and fought to establish themselves as farmers in the fertile lands of Canaan. There they were to suffer repeated defeats, occupation and deportation. But they always returned, thanks to their strong sense of identity forged at the time of the Exodus, and their faith in their covenant with God. In my own lifetime, Jews have returned again to build the strong state of Israel – though at the expense of Palestinians turned out from their ancestral homes.

Jesus was able to build on this Jewish sense of identity to proclaim his good news. He used the symbolism of the Passover lamb – quite deliberately, I think – when he went up to Jerusalem for the Passover. There his passion and death shows Christians how to confront evil with self-sacrifice, becoming our Paschal Lamb, who died to save us from the slavery of sin. And the early church was able to broaden the terms of the covenant to include gentiles as well as Jews - largely through the insights of St Paul and St Peter - so that we gentile Christians now claim that covenant with God for ourselves.

Today we face a different sort of slavery to the ancient Israelites – a slavery of excess.
Men and women are driven by economic forces to ever greater consumption. We are enslaved by a false God of endless economic growth to maximise return on investment, without thought for others or the future. As a society, we do not care for the poor in our own country as we should. We do too little to ease the plight of refugees from conflict and natural disasters. We continue to pollute the atmosphere with greenhouse gases which threaten environmental catastrophe. We ignore issues of global justice and ethnic tensions springing from competition for scarce resources. How do we as Christians respond to these moral challenges?

We know we must change our ways, as we travel into the future on a pilgrimage of faith and hope. We cannot see our promised land, nor can we be certain how to get there, so we are filled with fear about giving up our comfortable lifestyles to sojourn in the wilderness. In our imagination we suffer hunger and thirst, with wild animals lurking in the bushes and unfriendly neighbours ready to attack. And we protest that the costs of the journey are to be borne by us, while the benefits will not be felt in our time.

Yet we can learn from the history of the children of Israel - how they changed after the Passover and the Exodus from a bickering group of refugees into a nation and flourished in their promised land. As we can too, in ours.

We need to sense the urgency of God’s call to us to get ready for a new life. We hear it in Jesus’s proclamation, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near’. We must trust in our covenant with the one almighty God, who chooses us and loves us. We will get our focus right if we follow Jesus’s commandments to love God and to love our neighbours.

But we have to move quickly – ‘the night is far gone, the day is near’, as Paul tells the Romans in today’s Epistle reading (Romans 13:8-14).