Two religious celebrations collide today. Jews celebrating the sixth day of Passover and Christians marking the central element of their story, the resurrection of Jesus.
Passover is the annual retelling of a story of liberation - a story of people being freed from slavery.
Easter is the annual celebration of a miraculous victory over death and over human sinfulness.
These seem like very different stories. One about a people - a nation - escaping cruel slavery in a land not their own - a story of the power and goodness of an invisible God that loved and cared for them enough to lead them to freedom.
The other is a story of hope and despair and then a new kind of victory - a miraculous defeat of death and sin by a visible God become human.
But these stories are intermingled and woven together throughout history.
Jesus went to Jerusalem, was arrested, and was executed at Passover. It was for this reason that Jerusalem was filled with people. So, it is no coincidence that Easter and Passover fall at the same time in the calendar. Some scholars even believe that the New Testament last supper was actually a Passover celebration - a Seder.
At Passover, the custom in Jesus’ time included the ritual sacrifice of a Passover - or Paschal - lamb. This sacrifice echoed part of the Exodus story, where the blood of a lamb was used to mark the doors of the Israelites so that an avenging angel would leave them untouched. In the Christian tradition, it was Jesus that came to be identified with this sacrificial lamb when he died on the cross - the perfect sacrifice - called by Christians “the lamb of God.”
And within both stories, the theme that runs throughout like a silver thread through a tapestry is freedom.
Passover tells the story of liberation from Egypt.
In the Easter story, the great hope raised by Jesus was of liberation from another oppressor - in this case the Roman Empire. Jesus was seen by his followers as the fulfillment of prophecies that a great king would arise to free his people.
That hope was destroyed with Jesus’ arrest and execution, but the resurrection story then revives the hope of freedom - freedom of a different sort.
Jesus is said to have died to for a new kind of freedom - to free humankind from a slavery to sinfulness.
I don’t believe in supernatural sin, but I know that freedom is not as simple as an absence of bars and chains.
Today - this Easter - this Passover - are we free?
We come here without chains. We are free to come or go as we please.
Yesterday was the anniversary of the death of this chapel’s greatest minister, Richard Price - a leader and thinker who risked his reputation and his safety to speak for freedom - for the rights of individuals over the power of hereditary monarchs.
Compared to the middle of the 18th Century, when Price lived, we have enormous individual rights and we don’t have to beg a King or Queen for those rights. And, unlike those time, we are even free to call ourselves Unitarian without criminal penalty.
Although many in the world still long for the freedom promised in the Passover story, we, here, have that freedom.
But I also know that we - most of us - do not always feel all that free.
For one thing, there are external limitations on our freedom. The need to have money to survive certainly makes many of us captive to jobs - to work that would not be our first choice of what to do every day.
And we are subject to limitations that are meant to be for the good of society and the protection of the freedoms of others. We are not allowed to steal or kill or drive too fast.
And then, for better or worse, many of us have our freedoms limited by relationships. That may be the need to wake, or work, or cook for our cherished children. It may be a result of an illness in a loved one or a disability of our own.
There are many ways we are limited by external forces, but ultimately and most importantly, our freedom is intimately tied up not just with what is around us and what happens to us, but with how we respond.
In the words of Antoine De Saint-Exupery, “I know but one freedom, and that is the freedom of the mind.”
If we do not feel free, it is for many of us the case that we are prisoners bound by chains that we hold within us and whose locks we ourselves secure.
The crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth is said to have brought freedom from human sin. Although the words may not match what we hold true, thre is invisible darkness within each of us that controls the keys to our prison cells. Whether we look toward sin or shame or anger or self-loathing or fear as the instruments of our imprisonment, we know that they are there.
Does it require a miracle to be liberated from this captivity? Does it require the execution of an incarnate deity to loosen our shackles?
The power is within each of us and grows amongst us.
Viktor Frankl, who survived the horrors of Nazi concentration camps and taught the deep lessons he learned there, emphasized that we choose whether or not to give up our freedom, even in the worst of circumstances:
"We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms--to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.”
Although we live in a culture that extolls individual freedom and celebrates our individual choices, it is not, in fact, a culture that encourages true liberation.
We are free to buy the products that we think will make the jailer of our self-doubt go a bit easier on us. If she sees us wearing the right fashions, having the right car, or earning the right promotion, she might go easier on us.
If we avoid all risk, seek refuge behind high gates, and shun contact the world, the jailer of fear might not beat us as severely, but he is still there.
If we work to build up our sense of indignation and blame for all that has happened in our past, the jailer of our anger may let us have an extra few minutes in the sunshine, but she is still there with the instruments that send electric charges of hate through our spirits.
True freedom is achieved only by destroying our jailers, not by appeasing them. True freedom requires us to awaken from the illusion that we can appease the tormentors we carry with us.
From poet Antonio Machado:
I love Jesus, who said to us:
heaven and earth will pass away.
When heaven and earth have passed away,
my word will still remain.
What was your word, Jesus?
Love? Forgiveness? Affection?
All your words were
one word: Wakeup.
The world we live in strengthens our jailers. It provides iron for the bars of shame and stone to build great walls of self-loathing.
Liberation comes of our own individual work and our work together to escape the illusions of separation and inadequacy. Liberation comes from an acceptance of our nature and the growth that comes from that acceptance.
The world of freedom is a world of honesty, a world with people who are prepared to accept us as we are, a world of healing and a world of love.
It is the world we aim to create, here, in microcosm.
"Freedom is what you do with what's been done to you" said Jean Paul Sartre.
Let us awaken to freedom.