I’m not sure we do a good job of remembering anymore—we might share the stories of a generation or two, but few of us continue to share the stories of how our ancestors came to be in this country and the challenges and joys they may have known. Instead, we are much more likely to assume an ancestry that started in one place and has found its way to this place. Whatever our current circumstances—our focus relies heavily on the present and not on the past. For the Hebrew people of the Old Testament, their ancestry is everything. They tell the stories of those who had gone before them as ritual and rite.
In our reading from Deuteronomy, we hear the words of Moses as he prepares his people to life beyond wilderness. The Hebrew people had wandered in the wilderness for forty years as Moses led them to the Promised Land. In that time, Moses was to give the people the law as they endured hardship after hardship, grew in their understanding and witness to God, and discovered their identity. After forty years, the Wilderness had begun to feel safe which is the precise moment it becomes dangerous. Ask Jesus, he had been in the wilderness for forty days, fasting and not falling prey to temptation—and just when he thinks its safe to go out again here comes ole Satan and his temptations.
Wilderness living is never easy or safe and if we get comfortable there we are only deceiving ourselves—allowing ourselves to believe in our present circumstances either because we are afraid of what could be or have allowed indifference and apathy exceed any sense of risk we might be wiling to engage in. The curious thing about the wilderness is that we can find ourselves wandering there without realizing it. Wilderness is chaotic and uncontrolled—an untamed place where we can easily lose direction and even purpose.
Though Moses and his people knew they were wandering in the wilderness, they had gotten lost to their purpose and direction in life holding on to a promise unrealized for those who had gone before them. Now that promise seems to be coming to fruition and Moses helps prepare his people to move beyond their life in the wilderness and through liturgy and word not reenter it. Moses says, “When you have come to the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take away some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling…” The ritual sounds a bit like stewardship, and it should—take the first fruits of the land, the land that God has given you, and give them back to God.
Moses goes on, “When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response…A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there…and he became a great nation…When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor upon us, we cried to the Lord…the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand…So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” The rite that accompanies the ritual is a retelling of the story of the Hebrew people, a story that they tell not simply as way of remembering what has happened but as an invitation into renewed and right relationship with God. The words they say when they bring their offering to God celebrates their past and the salvific way God has acted in their corporate history. God set them free, God guided them through the wilderness, God gives them the Promised Land—the land they can cultivate, find security and peace, and build community.
The act of stewardship that accompanies this retelling is an act of remembrance. By telling the story and making our offering we keep skin in the game so to speak. We are underscoring the importance and value of where we come from—what roots us in this world, in this life—instead of letting all the plenty that is around us distract us and trick us into getting lost in the wilderness of our own desires, needs, wants.
That is the value of Lent—it is a time of remembering who we are. If we approach Lent simply from the perspective of what we might take on or give up, if our focus is simply on ourselves as individuals then we lose the value of the wilderness experience. We are less likely to survive the wilderness experience as individuals—after all, we are not Jesus. But if our focus in this season helps us to discover our personal context located in the shared story and experience of our community, then our acts of self-examination and the disciplines we have taken on begin to draw us closer to one another—re-membering ourselves to one another.
My ancestor and yours was a wandering Aramean named Jacob. He stole his brother Essau’s birthright and had to flee from his lands. He wrestled with God by the river Jabbok. He made a covenant with God and became Israel. He knew sin and redemption, death and resurrection just as you and I know these things. His descendants would know brokenness—personally and institutionally—just as you and I know that same brokenness. And just as the Hebrews knew salvation from their sufferings in Egypt, we know salvation through the suffering of Christ on a cross. This is the story that defines us and calls us to respond to the God of our ancestors—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the God of Peter, Paul, and James, the God of Cuthbert, Francis, Theresa, the God of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mother Theresa, the God of you and me.
We are stewards of the story and we steward that story not simply through our tithe and giving to the church, but by remembering who we are and re-membering—connecting—ourselves to one another. We get lost in the wilderness because we get so focused on ourselves as individuals that we lose sight of one another. We fall prey to our temptations because without the support of other people, we can not ward off their many and varied assaults. Take some time this Lent to share your Lenten discipline with another and not simply hold on to it by yourself—not only will your temptations be easier to defend against, but you just might find yourself growing in relationship with another as you, too, become part of God’s story on this earth.
Lent 1C: Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13
Church of the Ascension, Montgomery, AL
Sunday, March 10, 2019
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer