Watch for the service video. Soon!
So the Dough Isn’t Ready
Rev. Kevin Tarsa
Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains
March 28, 2021
delivered via Zoom
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat’s wonderful reading, “Ready” from her Velveteen Rabbit’s Haggadah for Pesach, preceded the sermon.
OF KNEADING BOWLS
I have my great grandmother’s kneading bowl.
Well-used, slightly rough, bread-crust-golden, ceramic, with only a few small chips at the edges for all its years, and a delicate web of hairline fractures threading through it. It’s beautiful. It’s in Michigan, or I’d hold it up for you right now.
During my recent stay-cation, when I wasn’t ready to travel yet in order to see family, I visited a different way, I dove into some genealogical research, trying to trace family lines beyond this continent, back to Catholic Eastern Europe and the war-torn part of Poland that kept changing political hands and names. I know precious little about my father’s maternal Grandmother, born around 1875 in what was then Austria, but I do know that for the other side of my dad’s family, his father’s line, my grandmother and great grandmother were from the wrong side of the tracks. My grandfather’s family disowned him quite completely. Since all my great grandparents on my dad’s side (and a number on my mother’s side) came to this country in the late 1800s, I’m wondering what brought them, and what the journey was like, within and without, how ready they were, how lightly they needed to travel, what words, what mothers’ songs, what inspiration they brought with them, wrapped in the cloaks upon their shoulders.
I’m thoughtful also about our own current journeys into new internal and social territories. What readiness are we being called to? What new alphabets may we need to learn? What improvised, flat cakes will we need to make without relying on our familiar, tried-and-true yeast?
MORE THAN A STORY
I so resonate with that wonderful reading by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. I know, quite often, that experience of not feeling fully ready, always needing one more thing to feel ready, such that I never quite take the leap, the necessary leap. Perhaps you know that experience too, but as Rabbi Barenblat tells each of us:
Infinity is calling you forth
out of this birth canal
and into the future’s wide expanse.
And what a birth canal we are in right now, all us, each and together!
That reading is from the Rabbi Barenblat’s Velveteen Rabbit’s Haggadah for Pesach.
The Jewish Festival of Pesach, or Passover, began yesterday evening, at sundown and continues through next Sunday.
Haggadah means “the telling.” The Seder meals this week in Jewish communities and households will retell and celebrate the story of the ancient Israelites’ exodus from Egypt and their liberation from enslavement. They had come to Egypt centuries before, in order to survive, after famine ravaged their homeland. At first, they were welcomed, but times and leaders changed, and the Hebrew people were seen by a later Pharaoh as a political threat.
This is the story of Moses, the midwives, the Pharaoh’s daughter, the series of plagues, the Hebrew households Passed Over by death that took the firstborn of each Egyptian household, the Pharaoh with the waxing and waning hardness of heart, the Hebrew’s crossing of the Red Sea, or Sea of Reeds, Miriam dancing. The exact details depend on the Haggadah, in other words, on who’s doing the telling. Soldiers who liberated people held in the concentration camps at the end of World War II revised their Haggadot immediately. Freedom Haggadot arose in the 1960s and 70 in response to the civil right’s movement. There are Haggadot that center the women who hold the most significant moral courage in the biblical exodus story.
More than a telling, however, no matter how told, the Seder meals and rituals will embody that liberation story on the tongue, offering a literal taste of the bitterness of enslavement, the saltiness of tears, and the sweetness of God’s deliverance, for example.
More than that, the Seder meals will invite the people around the Seder table to experience exodus and liberation not as a story from an ancient past, but as their own personal experience unfolding in that very moment, their own experience of exodus, of leaving and liberation, the past sacred only to the extent that it informs and guides the present, meaningful only insofar as it liberates people now.
In many Christian traditions, today is Palm Sunday, Passion Sunday. Its Biblical story marks the triumphant arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem shortly before he is executed. Jesus rides into the city on a colt, a young donkey, and the joyous crowds, it is written, wave palm fronds and place them on the path before him. They lay their cloaks on the path too, the palm fronds a symbol of military victory, their personal cloaks a symbol of homage and submission, as might be placed before royalty. The people’s enthusiasm is born of their hope that Jesus will overthrow local Roman rule and/or the rule of the Jewish Temple hierarchy. Either way, their hope and their joy is that they will be liberated!
Here too, the story that unfolds during the week to come is made sacred by its ability to liberate people in the present. The Palm Sunday story already hints that the liberation may not be the liberation expected. Having Jesus ride a young donkey into the city is a storyteller’s way of linking Jesus back to prophesies in the Hebrew bible, and so to legitimize his role to Jewish people in early Christian times, but there is another layer of symbolism. Whereas horses were symbols of war, strength, and military might, the more humble donkeys were symbols of peace, evidence that this is not going to be the usual victory story, not the expected kind of liberation.
The two stories are connected by the celebration of Passover, also known as the “Season of Freedom,” a reason for Jesus to be in Jerusalem in the first place, and a time of year when Passover’s liberation story frequently stirred up rebellion and revolt in the Hebrew people. The likelihood, according to some scholars, is that Romans arrested and executed Jesus in a proactive attempt to squelch the anticipated, annual heated rebellion by the Hebrews. He was a rabble-rouser. The triumphal energy of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem would have indicated to Romans his dangerousness to the status quo. Black Lives Matter protests come readily to mind and heart. The liberation that Jesus’ life and death and teaching offered to so many, ultimately, was an internal liberation, rather than a political one, and all the more powerful for that reason.
And what about the bread, the unleavened dough? It is portrayed and understood as part of the Hebrew people’s experience of needing to leave Egypt in a hurry, when they had a chance, when the Pharaoh consented for a brief moment, to their release. There wasn’t time for the dough to rise, it is said, the dough wasn’t ready, so they took it along “as is,” and commemorated the experience ever after.
People who study such things say that the celebration of Passover appears to combine two ancient traditions, the spring rituals of Shepherds around the annual births of their lambs, and the farmers spring ritual of preparing for the early harvest of barley. Farmers would clear out all the old grain, and any leavening, in order to make a clean start for the new season. The elaborate rituals undertaken in kosher Jewish households, the rituals to remove all leavening and risk of leavening are meant, of course, to accompany and support an inner clearing out and readying for what’s to come.
As we get ready to make our way out of our COVID-19 exile, in this annual season of birth, and clearing out, and preparation for early harvest – this “season of freedom,” this month focusing on commitment, this year of political division and racial reckoning – my invitation to us all, is to let the spirit of Passover, and Palm Sunday, and Holy Week, call us to consider our own needed exodus – our own stepping into the water, our own desire for liberation for ourselves and others, informed, by our vision of the world we dream about, our hoped-for land of promise, of both milk and honey.
OUR OWN READYING, OUR OWN UNREADY DOUGH
I invite you into a time of reflection and thoughtfulness, to help seed that reflection.
First, I invite you to be aware of your body and your breathing….
To let any thoughts go with a simple noticing, and a farewell…
It’s been an entire year since we were called into our homes for our own and others’ safety and wellbeing. An unexpected and entirely new kind of year.
As you hold this last year in your heart, in your mind, in your body,
with all the feelings it’s held –the worry, the grief, the gratitude, the fear, the relief, the uncertainty, the clarity, the longing, the hope –
with all the feelings you are holding now
with all the discoveries you’ve made about yourself – some surprising, some confirming, some subtle new twists on who you thought you were –
allow yourself to imagine moving into what comes next with a sense of freedom, and hope and release… freedom, hope and release felt in your body….
Imagine the life and landscape that would offer that sense of freedom, and hope and release to you,
Imagine what it feels like to move into that life and landscape that you long for, into the freedom you long for,
…freedom for yourself, freedom for others.
What does it feel like in your heart, your mind, your body?
Is there a part of you that is not ready,
perhaps because there are simply too many unknowns to go much farther yet?
Is there anything in you that hesitates?
Is there any part of you that feels held in, held back, held captive in some way?
What holds you? What keeps you from moving forward? From stepping into the water?*
(*a reference to the Midrash and Talmud story of Nachshon offered earlier in the service – wherein the Red Sea did not part for the Israelites fleeing enslavement in Egypt until Nachshon stepped into the water and walked in far enough for the water to reach and, some say cover, his mouth and nose. Another telling of the story says that the water did not part to open safe passage until everyone got into the water, arm in arm.)
Would it help you to wear God like a cloak? Wrapped around you?
Would it help to wear Love like a cloak, wrapped around you?
To stride forth with confidence, though you don’t know where you are going?
What are the words of your sages that you carry with you, no matter how lightly you travel, the wisdom shared that is now within you?
What are the songs of your mothers that feed you, comfort you, encourage you?
What inspiration is wrapped in your kneading bowl, with its flour ground from the corners of your recent experience, collected from your most recent harvests?
Infinity is calling you forth
out of this birth canal
and into the future’s wide expanse.
Trust that when the time comes what you carry will sustain you,
And take the first step, the first roll, the first forward movement
Out the door,
Or maybe, into the water.
May you be so.
Together, connected to one another, may we be so.