The Divided Self and the Love of Christ

Sermon by Burton Cooper

Exod 12; Rom 13:8-14
September 10, 2017

The Lord said to Moses ...
I will strike down every first born in the land of Egypt,
Both human beings and animals ...
When I see the blood on the houses where you live,
I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you
When I strike the land of Egypt.

These words, striking down every first born, both human beings and animals, if read
unsympathetically, could make our blood run cold --- for this would be a murder of the
innocents that dwarfs Herod’s murder of the two year olds, the one we read about in the
gospel of Matthew. Can we even envision a great, imperial, nation’s response to the
death of the first born in every family? It staggers the imagination. The howls of grief
would reach the heavens. So is it not gross even to consider a sympathetic reading?
And yet, as we well know, and just heard read, the final line of this passage carries the
instruction to celebrate this event, this murdering of the Egyptian children and the passing
over of the Hebrew children, to “celebrate it as a festival to the Lord.” Of course, we
readers of scripture know the reason for this celebration. For this murder of the innocents
--- which was only the last of ten deadly plagues visited upon the Egyptian people --- was
done for the sake of freeing an oppressed people from slavery --- and we all know that to
enslave a human being is a great wrong that begs to be righted, and when it is righted it is
a cause for celebration, especially by the formerly oppressed people. Of course, that
freedom achieved had a price, a terrible price. Someone had to pay. In this case, the
Egyptian people.
We have stumbled hear upon an age old human problematic, call it the human dilemma,
the human predicament; call it original sin. It is a moral ambiguity that no nation, no
people, seems able to escape in its history, a moral ambiguity rooted in a divide, a divided
self, a contrariness in our instincts, in our inherent impulses: for we find that we are in the
power of our aggressive, self-interested impulses, a power capable of overwhelming,
sometimes with justification, what we think of as our more humane empathetic instincts,
instincts counter to our aggressions, instincts, for example, that let us feel the terribleness
of taking the life of another human being, or any being for that matter. This morning’s
reading from the Book of Exodus, an ancient document rooted in oral history, exemplifies
the way aggression serves our self-interested impulses, serves it so strongly that the text
omits any expression of empathy for the Egyptian children, for the Egyptian families, just
as in the continuation of that exodus story, where the entire Egyptian army is drowned in
the Red Sea, that event is greeted by the Israelite women dancing with tambourines, with
Miriam, Moses’ sister, leading the dancers, singing, “The Lord has triumphed gloriously,
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.” That joyous celebration is understandable,
but centuries later that lack of empathy in the text for the dead Egyptian soldiers is felt
deeply, for we find in Rabbinic writings, dating from New Testament times, the insistence
that God wept grievously for the dead Egyptian soldiers. The past looks, feels, different
once it is past. The passage of time sometimes lets us see what we will not see in the

moment, lets us feel now what we would not feel then. We don’t have to seek far for such
examples. Many of us Americans feel differently now about the dropping of atomic
bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Whether or not we believe that it was
justified in saving American lives, we now grieve deeply for the suffering it brought upon
Japanese people. Similarly, regarding our feelings towards the almost genocidal suffering
we brought upon the native Indian population in the 18th and 19th centuries. And, of
course, we feel shame today regarding our long history of slavery and racial prejudice.
Our empathetic instincts may take time to rouse themselves, but apparently, eventually,
they will out. They tend to come out a little late, though not always --- think of the
quickness of our empathetic response to the people of Houston, devastated by the
floodwaters caused by hurricane Harvey; think of the widespread grief when the twin
towers fell and thousands died on 9/11, sixteen years ago, tomorrow. Of course, the
jihadists, and perhaps many others, were overjoyed at the time, and some may well have
celebrated 9/11 with tambourines and song and dance. Perhaps, also, thirty or forty
years from now, some of those jihadists may come to regret their actions, feel humiliated
by them, feel shame. Such are the dynamics of our nature, the impulses of our divided
I think of John LeCarre, that master spy novelist, who was himself a spy as a young man,
and who, in a recent interview with Terry Gross on NPR , spoke of his regret for things he
had done as a spy but did them for the sake of a greater cause. A greater cause: that is
the dominant reason perhaps for our willingness to do harm to others. Which leads me to
think of Tony Judt, that brilliant essayist who died a few years ago, something Tony Judt
said. Judt, had been a Zionist in his youth, had spent some years in Israel as as a young
man, but in his middle years had come to believe that the suffering and wrongs committed
upon the Palestinian people could not justify the maintenance of the state of Israel. He
wrote that once Israelies saw what they were doing to Palestinians, they should leave that
country. That was a minority voice, a tiny minority, I suspect, and Judt was pilloried for
saying what he said. The dominant voice held that the two thousand years of Jewish
people persecuted in other lands justified the establishment of a Jewish state on their
ancient land. That was the greater cause justifying the harm being done to another
people. You see how difficult these issues can be. There are no easy answers;
sometimes it seems there are no answers at all. But then I think of Jesus and Paul. They
don’t so much give us answers as a way of being, a way of maintaining our sanity, a way
of loving life, of affirming the goodness of life, in a world so constantly at war, so filled with
conflict, descending sometimes into chaos with towns and villages, cities, destroyed, lives
uprooted, devastated.
Paul knew only too well the power of human aggression, for he had engaged in it himself,
until he was grasped by the power of love, something that had its beginning in his vision
of Christ on the road to Damascus. Despite the world he saw around him, Paul came to
trust in love as our ultimate reality, and urges that trust on us. “Owe no one anything,
except to love one another,” he says in today’s lection, and elsewhere says, “If I have not
love, it profits me nothing.” Perhaps we should think of faith not so much as beliefs that
have no proof, but faith as the trust that love is our ground, that love is the reason why
there is life, that the purpose of life, life’s aim, is love. Love is our origin and love is our
end. That is our faith. We need to leap to have that faith, but as Bill Coffin liked to say,
“First we leap, and then we grow wings.” So let us leap, let us have the courage to leap.

And though there are times when love seems but a whisper in the tumult and hurt of life,
love remains what is most real, that we are most real when we go out in love to another,
when we take in the love of another.
Finally, I think of Jesus, an embodiment of the humble, one who was despised, betrayed,
humiliated in his lifetime, and yet so fully incarnating the love of God that he finds
intolerable any kind of exploitation, oppression, violence, injustice, and goes to his death
on the cross willingly, so that we can see him as someone who rather than resist violently
the wrong being done to him, rather than inflict suffering on others, he takes suffering
upon himself, thereby becoming a full and final revelation of God, a revelation of what is
ultimate in reality, that the power which gives us life is compassion itself, suffering with
our suffering, forgiving, ever forgiving, ever calling us, as Paul says, to owe no one
anything but love, for it profits us nothing, if we have not love.
Thanks be to Christ.
Thanks be to God.