I preached this message March 28, 2010.
Texts: Exodus 1-15; Hans Christian Andersen, “The Nightingale”
One of the reasons I like routines is that they allow me to dwell in the illusion that I know what the day will bring. That illusion in turn furthers the illusion that I’m in control of my life. There are things we can control, and there’s far more we can’t. Royalty of our lives, we may expect the birds to sing when we arrive in the garden. We might expect that the economy will take notice of our inherent worth and provide us with a meaningful and decent job. We may even expect social approval and recognition for how hard we work, how flawless we appear, how much we give from ourselves. After all, the king and queen are present. We’re in control. Because if we’re not in control, then what are we? Who are we? Where are we?
Passover invites us to remember how much of our lives are not within our control. We are players in a larger society. We are members of families, friendship networks, workplaces, neighborhoods, and communities. We are limited in our capacities to predict, control, and defend ourselves from plagues, from hard-heartedness, from suffering. We find fear and anger and grief showing up – big signs that we are most definitely not in control. Fear and anger and grief are experiences of being caught in mitzrayim, in the narrow place.
The Passover story guides us through this experience of recognizing that, for so much of our lives, we’re not in control. We begin, working very hard, enslaved to the myth that if we work hard enough, we will be seen and rewarded for our meritorious labor. It happens every once in a while, right? There was Joseph, lifted by Pharaoh out of prison so Joseph could interpret dreams. That business with was several generations ago, but that just means we need to work harder, be more meritorious.
Meanwhile, Pharaoh is worrying about staying in power. Control is a difficult thing. His sister’s son, Moses, killed an Egyptian on behalf of the Jewish slaves. That was showing unsteadiness in Pharaoh’s control. He reached out to try and exert more control, demanding more work with fewer resources, as the slaves tried to make bricks without straw.
What are your worries? Where are you trying to stay in control in your life? How are you trying to make bricks with no straw? ( )
Both Pharaoh and the Hebrew people are confused. Wasn’t Pharaoh king? Shouldn’t people just be grateful for the way they were allowed to scrape by? Weren’t the Hebrew people the most industrious of slaves already? Shouldn’t Pharaoh be noticing how hard they worked? When our illusion that that we are each and all of us entirely in control of our lives is shaken, one of the first responses in the midst of confusion is to try and exert more control. But a more elaborate cage does not free the nightingales.
There comes a time when the illusion of being in control is shattered, when the kings and queens are aware of the bonds and bounds of their rule, when we can endure no more. Ten plagues were required to take Pharaoh to bottom, to recognize that he wasn’t in control, and it was time for him to enter the unknown. Ten plagues were needed to bring the slaves to the place where the fearful unknown looked better than trying to stick it out in Egypt. To recognize the cage both Pharaoh and the Hebrew people were living inside, they faced thirst (blood), being squeezed out of their place (frogs), becoming the food for parasites (lice), hounded by tiny nips and insults (flies), lost in the stench and decay of abundance (livestock plague), disease (boils), beatings (hail), hunger (locusts), isolation (darkness), and loss of love (death). These ten plagues are with us still and are still what draw people out of the illusion of control and into a willingness to venture into the unknown. Being thirsty, being squeezed, being eaten alive, suffering tiny bites and insults, overwhelmed by the abundance of lives, experience disease, taking beatings, hunger, isolation, and the loss of love show us over and over that we are not truly in control of much of our lives.
The release from mitzrayim, from being caught in the narrow place, is openness. It is a place of not knowing. Who here is more comfortable when they know what’s happening or to be expected? One of the ways Unitarian Universalists know ourselves is that we value knowing very, very highly. Knowing and that need to be in the know is like leavening – it can be exciting, it can puff us up. But have you ever had one of those days where you can’t take in one more piece of knowing, you’re just full up to your eyeballs with information? And then not knowing becomes relief? And then there are those times when the unexpected and unknown is exciting, delightful, wonderful! Think about seeing a movie or a play you’re surprised to love, or trying cooking a new dish and thinking “this is the best thing I’ve ever tasted!” or meeting someone you didn’t know and really hitting it off so that you’re just yearning for the next time you can see them. Making space for the unknown can be making space for the wonderful. It isn’t always bad, this not knowing, this not being in control. Pursuing a ritual time of not knowing invites us to clean out all the sense of possibility that has become full of the leaven of knowing. We change the Haggadah – the way we retell the Passover story at the special meals, the Seder -- every year and leave the door open to Elijah and Miriam and change so that even in the midst of these rituals, the unknown may enter, rejoice, and come in. We travel from mitzrayim (narrowness) to openness (unknowing).
The ten plagues are just a ritual number, something to remind us all that we need both hands full of evidence that we our illusion of control is just that, an illusion, before we surrender to the unknown. Then there’s the moment of surrender, and true to how we have lived, Pharaoh reconsiders and tries to re-exert control, pursuing the Hebrew people. His failure to stop resulted in his death. The Hebrew people reached the great sea and hesitated to cross, to enter the true unknown, but caught between a re-exertion of control and the unknown, remembering what they had endured, they crossed the sea.
When we’re in the midst of going into the unknown, our conditioning can be that we have to try and re-exert control. The cage door is the most constricted point in the cage. Coming through that door is the narrowest place of all, the time of greatest fear, anger, and grief. Is the unknown really worth it? What does freedom really mean to us when we’re nearly caught, pressed in from all sides, by this grief, anger, and fear? We all have different spiritual practices or stories or ways of coping with passing through the cage door, but one of my favorites is a Taoist teaching story I encountered via the teachings of Alan Watts, who retells a tale of Chaung-tzu.
There’s this seeker of wisdom traveling out and about in the world, and finds herself near white water rapids on the river. At the top of the rapids, she sees an old man roll off the bank into the river, and she’s very afraid, very worried for this old man. She races down the bank of the river to help fish the old man out. But before the seeker can reach him, he jumps out of the river and hustles back up the riverbank. When she reaches him, she exclaims in amazement at how he survived the rapids and the rushing river and the rocks. How did he do it, she asks. He shrugs his shoulders and says, “There wasn’t any trick. I just went in with a swirl and out with a whirl, becoming like the water.”
When we’re too full of the illusion of control and too full of the leaven of knowing, our hearts harden, the way becomes narrower, as we encounter again and again the limitations to our control, the limitations to our knowing. When we throw ourselves with a swirl and whirl in and out of the waters of life, we throw our whole selves into the unknown, and we accept as sufficient, as dayeinu, where we are carried, what there is in the day. The Hebrew people threw themselves out of the known and into the unknown. They opened the gilded cage and released the nightingales to sing.
And sing the people do, on the other shore. They don’t know how long they’ll be in the wilderness. They don’t know how they will live. They don’t know how they will die. They don’t know. But in that moment, they know that something’s changed, that the cage door is open. In that moment, Miriam raises her tambourine and starts to beat a rhythm. In that moment, Miriam sings her gratitude for that moment. And the people join her. Tomorrow is unknown. Yesterday is behind them. Today, they are and that is enough, that is dayeinu, sufficient. May it be so for us. Amen.
 The Passover story covers Exodus 1-15.
 “A Teaching Story from Taoism: Way Beyond Seeking by Alan Watts” Spirituality & Practice. http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/books/excerpts.php?id=13337