“Among the many prayers and traditions for the Passover seder, there is one song that is both a crowd favorite, and a work of theological genius. It’s a song that is more than a thousand years old, passed down generation to generation. The song has fifteen stanzas, each recounting one of God’s mighty acts, and each ending with the same Hebrew word, Dayenu.
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Capitol Hill
April 12, 2015
Among the many prayers and traditions for the Passover seder, there is one song that is both a crowd favorite, and a work of theological genius. It’s a song that is more than a thousand years old, passed down generation to generation. The song has fifteen stanzas, each recounting one of God’s mighty acts, and each ending with the same Hebrew word, Dayenu.
Dayenu. Roughly translated as “It would have been enough,” but carrying so much more meaning – gratitude, humility, awe, wonder, and even a bit of shame that we might ever doubt God’s faithfulness to us.
“It would have been enough,” the song begins, “if you, O God, had brought us out of Egypt.” It would have been enough. Dayenu.
It would have been enough if you, O God, had executed justice on the Egyptians. It would have been enough. Dayenu.
And on and on the song goes, act of God after act of God, gift to God’s people after gift to God’s people
If you had split the sea. Dayenu.
If you had drowned our oppressors. Dayenu.
If you had fed us manna. Dayenu
If you had given us the Torah. Dayenu
If you had done just one of these things, it would have been enough – more than enough. Dayenu.
Dayenu is a song of memory and hope, a song of salvation,
a song to remember the acts of God’s goodness in the midst of a world that seems very un-like the promised land of milk and honey, a world in which resentment and grumbling dissatisfaction can so easily take hold of us.
So I was amused to discover that generations of Jews in Afghanistan and Iran would hit each other over the head with green onions during the middle verses of Dayenu. Why you might ask? To remind themselves not to long for the “good-old-days of Egypt” –– days full of onions and fish … but days of slavery and oppression, too. We too can be tempted by the comforts of life – even the comforts that come at cost. But if we remember, we might long instead for true freedom. Doyen
Green onions or not, the central question of the song Dayenu is this: What would be enough, for you, to believe?
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” Jesus tells us this week in the Gospel of John. It’s a Gospel we know and love.
Thomas, Doubting Thomas, is dear to many us, the patron saint of skeptics and intellectuals, the one in whom we find comfort when we struggle to believe:
Thomas, who would not just “accept it on faith”.
Thomas, who wanted to see for himself.
Thomas, whose doubt was welcomed by Jesus with gentleness.
Thomas, for whom it was not good enough, just to hear the Good News.
And yet as the Gospel comes to a close we have the unmistakable message that this will need to be good enough from now on. There are no more appearances of Jesus. No more personalized encounters with his wounds.
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” is the final word of Jesus.
A bit of comfort, perhaps, because everyone ever reading or hearing John’s Gospel –from the time it was written until today – would be in that category:
people who follow a Jesus they have never seen
people who have come to believe in stories we have heard
Stories designed to show us that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, the Christ – God from God, Light from Light, Word of the Father, begotten before all ages.
John’s Gospel goes to great lengths to select the stories, the Signs (as John calls them) that he believes are most likely to convince us of the truth about Jesus.
In the traditional count, there are seven great signs of the Gospel. Seven is no accident, of course. They are designed to be a kind of second-creation – seven signs, seven days – the old Adam passing away and the new one coming to life.
- Changing water into wine
- Healing the royal official’s son at Capernaum
- Healing the paralytic at Bethsaida
- Feeding the 5000
- Walking on water
- Healing the man born blind
- Raising Lazarus from the dead
Sevens signs, that we may come to believe … that we may have life in his name. There were many other signs, John tells us, signs not written in this book. And yet, John hopes that what is written here will be enough for you, for me, to believe.
Is it? Are you ready to say, Dayenu? What is enough for you to believe?
Believing of course is about more than assent to theological propositions – it is about living our lives in the way of Jesus, claiming our place in the household of God, pledging our allegiance to God’s reign on earth, and setting our hearts and minds and spirits toward the New Creation.
So, what is enough for you, for me, to believe? It’s something I think about a lot, as a priest. Since I better have a pretty good answer. And clearly you have an answer, too, since you are here today, instead of somewhere else – at the gym, in bed, at brunch. What would you say?
Perhaps, John’s Signs are enough for you. Perhaps, you have always been held in the cradle of the Church and your belief flows from generations before. Perhaps, you have been saved – saved from addiction, violence, contempt, fear, rejection, regret. Perhaps you heard some Good News that changed your life, a word of welcome, a word of truth.
What is enough for you, to believe?
I am temped to launch into a second sermon about why we do not believe, since Dayenu cuts both ways. We can say, Dayenu, not only as a word of gratitude, but as a word of protest as well.
It would have been enough if you made wars to cease in all the world, O God. But you did nott. It would have been enough. Dayenu.
It would have been enough if you put into the hearts of all your people the unshakeable conviction that each life is equal before you. And yet, we oppress and kill each other, just like in Egypt. That would have been enough. Dayenu.
We could go on and on, with things that (we think) would make us believe, if only they were true. These doubts, I think, serve to focus our longing on the redeemed world of God’s promises, the resurrected creation that we celebrate this season – the triumph of life over death, of good over evil. We want that world, we want to believe.
The strife is o’er, the battle won! We sang last week. But we know, it is not. The strife continues. The battle is not won. And this has always been true.
In the story of God and God’s people, there has never been a moment of perfection. No voice from heaven, no prophet, no sage, no Temple, no priest, no miraculous Sign, no Promised Land, not even the Son of God could make everything okay.
In the Easter season, we preachers are tempted to say too much, or too little, about the resurrection.
When we say too much, that it changed the foundations of the universe and conquered death once for all, we blindly ignore evil’s grip on this world.
When we say too little, that Jesus lives in you and me, we shortchange the power of God, and reduce our faith to a feeling, or wishful thinking about the future.
If there is anything we can say about the resurrection, it is this: It’s slow.
There is never a moment of total transformation. Never a time when everything changes. Even in the Gospel texts themselves, we see resurrection unfolding – encounter by encounter, moment by moment, person by person. At the tomb, by the seashore, in the locked upper room.
And so without a total resurrection, why do I believe? What is enough for me?
For me, it’s enough that the words of Jesus are true. That the path he walked – a path of love for neighbor, a path of justice, a path of equality and hope – that this path is indeed the path of life.
Would I love a personalized sign from heaven, or a Thomas-like encounter with the Risen Christ? You bet.
But in the meantime, I am left with only one body of Christ – this one.
You and me, and our sisters and brothers around the world. Who with all our brokenness and pain and struggle and doubt still manage to be a sign of redemption in this world.
And that seems to be the way God wanted it all to work.
When Jesus left this world, he left behind a people – with a message and a story, and a Spirit to be their advocate and guide. A people on the way to redemption.
I wish we were further along that way. I wish there were more signs that goodness will triumph, once and for all.
But for now we have this Body of Christ. Nothing more, and nothing less.
And to that I say, Dayenu.