The Great Dictator

Exodus 12:1-14

 The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgements: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.
 This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.

Romans 13:8-14

 Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
 Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Matthew 18:15-20

 “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
In 1940, the movie “The Great Dictator” was released. It was two years in the making and it was the brainchild of Charlie Chaplin who wrote directed and starred in the movie, playing both the hero, a Jewish barber; and the main villain. The villain was a take-off of Adolf Hitler.
It was an ambitious and brave film, because at the time it was announced in 1938, The United States had a non-interventionist policy in Europe. There was a lot of anti-Semitism in the United States and also a lot of people with German background.
The British said they would ban the film because they were in 1938 still trying to appease Hitler.
 However Chaplin, put up his own money, took the risk and made a comic political satire, which arguably was one of the great films of all time.
 It was a funny film with a lot of slapstick. Later on Chaplin said that if had known about Hitler’s final solution, he probably wouldn’t have made the film. Before the war started Chaplin was ready to make fun of dictators and Fascism and anti-Semitism.
By the end of the war, the world saw how evil and disgusting Hitler’s treatment of the Jews and others were and it was way beyond making fun.
 But for Chaplin it was much more than making a funny film and making money…
…it was a very personal political statement he wanted to make about the nature of dictators.
 The sad thing is that many people, or most people and sometimes even us are attracted to dictatorship or forms of dictatorship.
Dictators represent that they have all the answers and they are going to make the country great again. Dictators say they will fix the economy and will wipe out the enemies and promise a promise land.
They often emerge after time of catastrophe, such as war or economic crisis.  They often are good speakers, confident and charismatic.
They offer great rewards and promises and often tell people what they want to hear, but actually offer little substance.
They frequently will blame or scapegoat others, or minorities, or other countries and often use fear tactics to say that if you do not support the dictator, the others (ie. the minorities, the terrorists, the other countries, the criminals… whoever) will destroy them.
They look for loyalty and look to create followers and initially pander to the needs and wants of these followers and often try to whip up hate and outrage of the followers towards the target group that is considered the enemy.

However once in power, they brook no opposition, steamroll over opposition, make the decisions unilaterally, impose their will, use violence and exclusion and suppress free speech and use other nefarious tactics and all for their own glory and seldom for the common good.

 And this world has no shortage of them from those who run countries, to those who run corporations, to those who lead religious cults, and to those who are dictators in their home life.
 And in biblical times dictators were more the norm than the exception when it came to running countries.
 Even God warned the people of Israel about the dangers of Kings as dictators in 1 Samuel chapter 8. They will raise armies and conscript your children. They will take your wine and your grain and your produce. They will take your money to build palaces. They will take your animals and livestock. They will enslave you.
And one day you will cry to be released from the slavery of the king.
 And today’s Old Testament Lesson is part of the story about one of the great dictators in the Old Testament, The Pharaoh.
Maybe the most important story in the whole Old Testament is the story of the Exodus. It is the story of the Jews who were enslaved in Egypt with the Pharaoh a hard taskmaster. The Pharaoh even went so far as to order the baby boys killed.
And then along comes a saviour in the form of Moses. Really the Saviour is God, and Moses is his human instrument, and there is a series of plagues and then the night of the Passover, where supposedly an angel of death kills all the firstborn of the Egyptians and spares the  Jewish children, and the Pharaoh in grief lets his own son go.
 It is a story of slavery and of the slaves being set free at the hand of the divine.
 And the Jewish people decide to remember this great event and to this day Passover is celebrated, mostly as a family meal, to commemorate freedom.
 And we Christians have often understood Passover as an allusion to Christ and an allusion to the cross and resurrection, where we are set free from slavery to sin and selfishness and violence and are born again to live God’s way of love and inclusion.
 One of the messages of the Exodus is that God hears the cries of the poor and downtrodden and acts to save them.
In Luke’s gospel Jesus reads Isaiah and says that he is the fulfillment of the scripture and I quote:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me: He has sent me to announce good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom to captives, sight to the blind, to let the broken victims go free, to announce a year of favor from the Lord” (Luke 4:18-19).
Metaphorically, the Exodus it is a great story and a great text and has a universal application.
Where are you enslaved, and where do you need release?
We all have our Egypts and our Pharaohs that constrain us or enslave us.
For some it could be an addiction. For some it could be an abusive family situation.
For other it is lack of economic opportunity and/or decent work, that enslaves them in poverty.
Some people live where there are dictators and there is oppression, propaganda instead of free speech and severe violence and punishment for the slightest infringement of the rules and sometimes the rules are crazy.
Witness the death of one Otto Warmbier  a United States College student who went on a five day sightseeing trip to North Korea. He decided he wanted to take a souvenir home so he took a political poster off the wall.
He was arrested. He admitted it in tears and begged for forgiveness and was given 15 years hard labour as a punishment.
17 months later he was shipped back to the United States under mysterious circumstances in a vegetative state where he died a week later.
But maybe our slavery is to materialism, to wealth and material possessions.
We can even be enslaved to our doctrine, or our theology or our understanding of God when it has only one answer and brooks no differences, steamrolls over other forms of Christian theology, and accuses and points fingers at others.
And God wants us to be free. God wills for our exodus, for our liberation and our freedom.
 God wills it.
And the story is in the Exodus that God not only willed it, he effected it with the Passover.
There is one problem with this story however and it came home to me about 20 years ago when my children went to see the Disney movie, Prince of Egypt.
Our family loved Disney movies, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and the Little Mermaid were just some of those favourite movies.
But when they came back from seeing “The Prince of Egypt” they said they hated it.
 What? I said. “ You hated it.”
And they said: God killed all those babies and children.
According to the story, the tenth plague was the angel of death killing all the firstborn, but the Israelites were spared because they put the blood of a lamb on the doorposts and lintel.
And if you don’t think this squares with the gospel of Jesus, you are right. There is a disconnect with the one who said: “Suffer the children to come unto me and forbid them not.” And the Passover
There is a disconnect from the one who ask for forgiveness for the ones who kill him and the Passover.
There is a disconnect from the one who practices and preaches non-violence to the story of the tenth plague and the Passover.
 One way to handle it is not to speak about it. Just talk about it in metaphorical terms. We all have our exoduses and we all need to be freed.
And maybe another way to take it is to take it literally and suggest that God is still in the business of punishing people. There have been Christians that have suggested that AIDS was a punishment on gay people, or that the Hurricane in Haiti was God’s punishment on a nation that practised voodoo.
 Personally,  I find that even repulsive to talk about God that way. It is not my experience of God or of Christ, nor my theological training or my reading.
God is love.
So how do we handle the Passover?
 Well, I am struck by the gritty realism of the Passover Story. The oppression, the grief, the suffering of the Israelite people.
We know about suffering in this world. Famine in Horn of Africa, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea.
 We know about the suffering and displacement of the Syrian people, largely at the hands of their own dictator.
The last century saw huge oppressions and millions upon millions killed under Hitler, Chairman Mao, Pol Pot, Stalin.
 Certainly the Passover story resonates with us when it comes to oppression.
 And neither does it sugar coat the situation, saying that if we just pray harder or act nicer, or be more faithful then everything will be hunky dory.
 The struggle towards the promised land took fourty years.
And I am struck by who the victims are… the innocent children.
 It seems to me that whenever dictators take sway and efforts to oust the dictator take place, how often the ones who suffer most are the children, the poor and the innocent, and by that I mean the civilians who have no say about their own outcome.
 I am appalled at the situation in North Korea, the dictator and his war-mongering attitude, but I am almost as scared of some of the responses from those who oppose North Korea’s military aspirations, because while they tell North Korea that it doesn’t need to spend money on the military they  themselves seem to be putting military options to the front and centre.
 And if perchance war comes, it will not be the leaders who make the decisions who suffer, but the innocent civilians who will suffer most.
 Since Iraq was invaded in the Iraq war it is estimated a couple of hundred thousand civilians have died, more civilians than soldiers. And it has created over a million refugees from Iraq to other countries.
 Just think of the civilians and children in Syria. Maybe as many as a half million people killed in that conflict. And the millions of refugees. I can still see the picture of the little Syrian boy who drowned, who had relatives in Canada who wanted to take he and his family in.
 And so I think the Egyptian children stand for all the children, all the innocents, who die as a result of the decisions that grown-ups make, leaders make, dictators make, countries make ,that follow paths of aggression and dominance, either in the pain they cause directly or in the conflicts that happen to end the dictatorships.
Children and civilians will always be collateral damage in war and conflict.
 God didn’t strike Pharaoh dead, nor did he strike down Hitler, or Stalin, or Mao, or Pol Pot and he won’t strike down Kim-Jong-Un.
 Because that is not the way God is. God put us on the earth to make our own decisions and God works not sweeping out of the sky to destroy the bad guys, but works in humans hearts, asking us to work together, to live in peace, to be reasonable, to build community, to be reconciled one to another.
 And that is hard, hard work. Most of us have enough trouble living with our own families and friends, working through our personal conflicts, and being reconciled to the people we know best…
Some churches have enough trouble getting along with each other and being reconciled to each other, never mind being reconciled to North Korea and Iraq and Syria and Myanmar.
 And yet our gospel text puts forgiveness an reconciliation at the forefront of our ministry. If someone has something against you, go to that person and be reconciled. For when two or three are reconciled, Christ is right there.
 I do not believe that God is violent. I believe that when you look at the scriptures you see a progression of understanding and a grappling with the issue of what God does.
At first people think he would destroy the whole world, and then they think he burns cities that are bad like Sodom and Gomorrah, and then people think he destroys enemies, and punishes people for doing bad things, and then the book of Job wrestles with the issue and points out that bad things can happen to good people and God doesn’t cause the bad stuff.
But we do not really fully understand God until we see Jesus. And in Jesus we see the universal love and forgiveness of God. In God there is no darkness at all.
 And instead of intervening in every evil situation in the world and raining down fire and brimstone on the bad guys…
God has decided to work through ordinary humans like us. It is time for us to wake up and clothe ourselves with the love of Christ and work together and proclaim a vision not only of peace and love, but of equality and justice.
 We humans are the ones who can end the slavery in this world.
 At the end of the movie the Great Dictator, the Jewish Barber and the Great Dictator who are look-alikes are confused for each other and the Dictator ends up in the concentration camp and the Jewish Barber ends up as the dictator.
The Jewish Barber gets up to make a speech.
He says and I am giving only a part of the speech and slightly paraphrasing to be inclusive:
I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone – if possible – Jew, Gentile – black – white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness – not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.
In the 17th Chapter of St Luke it is written: “the Kingdom of God is within you” – not one person nor a group of people, but in all people! In you! You, the people have the power – The power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure.
Then – in the name of democracy – let us use that power – let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world – a decent world that will give people a chance to work – that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfill that promise. They never will!
Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people! Now let us fight to fulfill that promise! Let us fight to free the world – to do away with national barriers – to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all people’s happiness. In the name of democracy, let us all unite!
Let us all unite. That is what I think Christ does. He unites people, he brings them together with his way of forgiveness and reconciliation
It is the way to stand against hurricanes and floods and evils and injustice and even dictators
It is to love all our brothers and sisters and unite together working towards equality, peace, justice, compassion and service, for when two or three are gathered together in the name of Christ, that is the name of love, there Christ is in the midst of them.
Amen.