March 28, 2021 | Sarah Stewart
This afternoon here at First Unitarian Church we are hosting a zoom Seder. I think it's at 4:30; the details are in the newsletter. Abby Hannaford Riccardi and Dave Blodgett will be our hosts, and we'll be happy to be together. But I will be remembering what a Seder is usually like here at First Unitarian Church, especially these past few years. Folks sign up ahead of time to make special foods for the Seder dinner. Someone makes a nice sweet potato dish; someone might make potato kugel. Some people bring beet soup, some people bring roast chicken, there's plenty of masa. And on the evening of the Seder, and the day that we appoint during the festival of Passover, we gather here in the dining room at First Unitarian Church. And our rectangular tables are set up in a big U shape, so that we can all sit together and look at each other, as we go through the Haggadah and eat our meal together. Dave plays songs on his guitar. You've come to know them as the years go on, they're familiar songs to sing. And together we walk through the liturgy of Passover; the Haggadah, it's such a day of joy.
But in the midst of this celebration, this festival, this feast, there was a moment in the Haggadah when we and Jewish families and communities gathered for Seder dinners all over the world, stop and ask a question about lamenting. A child asks, “on all other nights we eat all kinds of vegetables and herbs, why do we eat bitter herbs, Maror, at our Seder?” And the answer comes, Maror reminds us of the bitter and cruel way Pharaoh tested the Jewish people by forcing them to be slaves in Egypt. At the Seder, we eat bitter herbs to remember the bitterness of slavery. We taste bitterness to remember those who died in captivity, and those who could not outrun the Egyptian army. In Hebrew, Egypt is called Mitzrayim, the narrow place, the place of suffering and Passover is passage out of that narrow place and into liberation. But every year we remember those people who didn't make it out of the narrow place, who didn't live to see liberation. This afternoon, as we gather together in our Seder, we will eat those bitter herbs, and we will remember those losses we have known in the last year, the bitterness of a year apart from friends and family.
For those who did not make it out of the narrow place of COVID, who died from COVID or other illnesses, who may have been alone in their last moments, we’ll taste the bitterness of lost jobs, lost hours, lost wages, lost opportunities. We’ll taste the bitterness of those weighed down by despair, of children out of school, of the plagues of racism and white supremacy in America. We’ll taste the tears of the victims of gun violence, and the plague of rage in our country. Truly, we have spent the last year in the wilderness, and perhaps now, we are out of that narrow place. Perhaps now we are standing outside of the city walls, knowing that the land of milk and honey is just on the other side. Thanks to science and vaccines, we are entering the promised land of a return to normal. We're almost there. Yet it is right to take a moment for lamentation, to mourn all we have lost, to taste the bitterness of the losses.
In ancient Israel, in that religious tradition, out of which grows both Christianity and contemporary Judaism today, lamentation was a shared religious activity. There were always times when something was not going correctly for the community. Perhaps Israel had suffered a military defeat, or there was a bad harvest, or even an epidemic of illness. And when the whole country was facing those hard times, there were liturgies of lamentation that the people would use. We read one of those psalms today, you know the psalter is the hymnal of ancient Judaism, and in fact, is still the basis of many hymns that we and our Jewish brothers and sisters sing today. And those psalms of lamentation were the psalms that were sung and recited during the hard times, when the people came together in a ritual response to the hard times of the community. You know, it's interesting, that colonial America did the same thing. We are very used to our Thanksgiving holiday in November now, but the colonial era days of Thanksgiving, were counterbalanced by days of fasting, when the whole community came together in mourning and lamentation for difficult times. In the Bible, in addition to the psalms of lamentation, there's an entire book called Lamentations. There are Psalms, which are even more bitter than the one we read today, which explore the dark night of the soul and the distance from God.
In our culture today we are used to expressions coming from internal feelings. First, we feel something inside our hearts, and then we act on it in the world; but that was not the practice of lamentation in ancient Israel. It was not about how individual Israelites felt, it was about a community response to tragedy and hard times, and the community's relationship to God as a whole. The sacred practice of lamentation helped the community remember its values during hard times. So, there might be a plague, and even if your loved ones were not sick, you lamented. Or if the battle had turned against Israel and no one in your family had died in the battle, you still lamented. Or if the harvest failed, yet you were privileged enough to be able to eat, you still lamented.
People lamented together as a community. And today, we are called to just such a time of lamentation, as we near the end of the acute Coronavirus pandemic. Lamentation does not need to arise out of our personal feelings, lamentation is a community response. It is an act of compassion and solidarity with others, and I expect that you know this from your own life practices. Perhaps you yourself are Jewish or you have had Jewish friends or family and somebody in that community has died, and you have gone to sit shiver with the family, to join them for a period of time, perhaps as long as a week after the death, to just be with them in their home and sit with them. Or you've attended a wake, a time to be together in a Christian community, to remember the day. Perhaps you've simply brought a casserole to someone during their time of need. So, we have these practices, to a certain extent in our community, but there's another way that we are different from ancient Israel. In ancient Israel, hardships were shared amongst almost everybody. I posited that maybe one family might not have been affected by the plague, or the poor battles, or the bad harvest, but that was pretty unlikely. This was a community without a lot of economic difference among its members and a bad harvest affected everyone. A bad battle affected everyone. Plagues affected everyone. There was no one untouched by war, or illness, or hunger. And that is certainly not true today.
So, our country has seen mass shootings again. In the past weeks, two in one week. And there are those who feel free to not lament, to say that guns are more important than lives. We've lived through a year of pandemic, but the pandemic hasn't touched everyone equally. Elders and frontline workers and health care workers and prisoners, and the homeless, and the poor, they have borne the brunt of the pandemic. And there are certainly those who refuse to mourn, who say that going out is more important than keeping our brothers and sisters safe. Although at least we did have a society wide response to the COVID epidemic. The last major epidemic to affect America was the AIDS epidemic which emerged in 1981. Since that time, 770,000 people have died of AIDS worldwide, many of them gay men. When AIDS emerged in the early 1980s, it was seen by governments as a gay disease, not something affecting everybody, not something that needed the kind of overwhelming response we gave to COVID, our leaders felt that they were able to avoid lamentation and mourning, on behalf of their people. Lamentation brings all of us to sit together with those who suffer. It opens our hearts. It transforms the lament of some into the lament of the community as a whole. It reminds us that none of us are exempt from this time of mourning. In the Christian tradition today is Palm Sunday. And on this day, the story goes, Jesus and his companions entered triumphantly into Jerusalem, perhaps for a different festival, perhaps for Sukkot, and then they spent some amount of time, maybe months, maybe years, in Jerusalem. And as the Passover festival approached Jesus's ministry and message was becoming more militant, more in the face of the Roman Empire, he turned over the tables at a temple. And by the time he sits down for the Passover meal with his companions, he knows that he will soon be arrested for his ministry and he knows that this is not going to go well for him. So, after their Seder meal, Jesus goes to the garden of Gethsemane, and he goes off by himself to pray and he asked his disciples to stay awake with him while he prays. But he must have been gone a long time because they couldn't, they fell asleep. And yet later on, when Jesus is arrested, they are ready to fight those Roman soldiers, even though Jesus says, “No, don't”. So, we are like the disciples. We are asked to sit with those who suffer in their time of hardship and stay awake. And we find that so difficult because we want to hurry on toward action. And I think this is really our temptation as Unitarian Universalists. We don't feel tempted to ignore the suffering of others, but we do feel tempted to hurry up toward action, to think, what can we do? what will make it better? And even that does not exempt us from the need to lament. We must spend time in the place of sorrow, keeping watch with our neighbors who cry, “let this cup pass from my lips”, even though they know it will not.
And there is good work to join. Just thinking about gun safety and gun violence in America. The Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, which experienced an anti-Semitic shooting in 2018 and killed 11 Jewish worshippers. Three women from the congregation there have united for action and are working to enact red flag interventions, comprehensive background checks, and eliminate military style weapons. Following the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown Connecticut in 2012, the organization Sandy Hook Promise has worked for universal background checks and trained people to know the signs of social isolation and impending violence, especially working with children, to recognize the signs of distress in their classmates. As the world emerges from COVID, many organizations are thinking about what a new normal should look like and how we can have more justice and equity for people in our communities so that there are not as many inequalities. This is good work. And we know we can help it happen, we can contribute to it through our donations, our compassion, our votes, our pressure on elected officials.
Yet today, on this day, when we eat the bitter herbs, when we remember the death of Jesus, let us lament. Before we spring to action, without pretending that everything is fine, we know that Easter will come. We proclaim a loving source of human dignity, who will leave no one outside, even in death. We believe that all souls will grow into harmony with the divine. Yet we also know that the springtime of this year has not come for everyone, not everyone will sing hallelujah. Not everyone will leave the narrow place. So, we lament, with those who lost loved ones to COVID, lament with those who lost loved ones to gun violence, lament with those who lost loved ones to AIDS, lament with those needing work, or housing, or food for their children. Tomorrow, we join in the work to change the world. Today, let us simply keep awake, sitting nearby, traveling together through the narrow place, mourning that not everyone makes it to the promised land.
I love you all. Amen.