Remember, again

Deuteronomy 26:1-11 (NIV)

26 When you have entered the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, 2 take some of the firstfruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land the Lord your God is giving you and put them in a basket. Then go to the place the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name 3 and say to the priest in office at the time, “I declare today to the Lord your God that I have come to the land the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.” 4 The priest shall take the basket from your hands and set it down in front of the altar of the Lord your God. 5 Then you shall declare before the Lord your God: “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. 6 But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, subjecting us to harsh labor. 7 Then we cried out to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. 8 So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders. 9 He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; 10 and now I bring the firstfruits of the soil that you, Lord, have given me.” Place the basket before the Lord your God and bow down before him. 11 Then you and the Levites and the foreigners residing among you shall rejoice in all the good things the Lord your God has given to you and your household.

“No Christian escapes a taste of the wilderness on the way to the promised land.”

–Evelyn Underhill

I’ve never been one who likes the rain. Oh sure, I grew up on a farm and I enjoy growing things in my vegetable garden. I know how important rain is. If the rain don’t flow, the crops won’t grow. But rain can be frustrating when you want to get something done outside and rain can be even more frustrating when it wants to come inside.

We purchased our home in 2008 and we knew at the time that the roof was not healthy. Our house was almost 90 years old and still had the original roof on it. It also had a lot of patches and spackle and more coats than the annual end-of-winter sale at Macy’s.

Recently the roof has been giving us fits. Some little leaks have grown into bigger leaks. Those leaks have caused some water damage. I’m no doctor, but I know from experience that leaking roofs and water damage can lead to a condition known as “MPS,” or Mad Pastor Syndrome. Why is it that the rain always comes during the night when I am trying to sleep? I try to patch holes, but the rain finds a way in every time! So during those nighttime storms I put buckets under the leaks, which catch the water well. But then I hear the drip, drip, drip all night long. It isn’t loud, but I assure you, it keeps me up at night!

So last Fall I asked around, made a few phone calls, got a few estimates, and signed one contract. This past Thursday two trucks filled with brave men and power tools pulled into my driveway and removed my roof – and I haven’t seen them sinceJ. Funny thing is that they didn’t ask for a check until they got the entire roof off. I guess that is a little more incentive to pay! Actually, they got close to half of the roof back on and by the middle of next week we should be prepared for whatever mother nature has to throw at us.

Today is the first Sunday of Lent. If you are like me and do not come from a liturgical church community, Lent might be a bit of a new concept for you. I tend to think of people from High Church backgrounds giving up something for Lent, like meat or sweets. But over the last number of years I feel like we have seen the observation of Lent gain in popularity among more non-liturgical churches. More people, Catholic and Protestant, Evangelical and Mainline, have come back to this practice of giving something up (or adding something) for Lent.

There is nothing in the Bible that commands that we give up something for Lent, so don’t feel like you have to. Your salvation is not contingent upon some temporary experience of being a vegetarian. But the Bible and our Christian tradition is full of rituals and routines that are intended to serve as reminders of what God has done for us and called us to. That’s exactly what Lent is about.

The forty-day observance of Lent comes from the story of Jesus fasting in the desert, which is found in all three of the Synoptic Gospels. As Jesus was beginning his ministry he took forty days to leave the rest of the world behind, even leaving behind food and water, to spend time in the wilderness, focusing on prayer and scripture. It was a way to better connect with God and to hear God speaking to him as Jesus discerned his calling.

Blogger Rachel Held Evans has been hosting an ongoing conversation on her website, inviting people to share how they will be observing Lent this year. I encourage you to check out these suggestions. For this morning I want to share three questions that Rachel invites us all to consider, regardless of whether or if you are observing Lent this year:

Questions to ask yourself (from Rachel Held Evans):

1. When I wake up on Resurrection Sunday morning, how will I be different?

2. Is there a habit or sin in my life that repeatedly gets in the way of loving God with my whole heart or loving my neighbor as myself? How do I address that habit over the next 40 days?

3. Is there anyone in my life from whom I need to ask forgiveness or pursue reconciliation?

Those are good questions to be asking ourselves, not only during Lent, but every day of the year.

Our scripture for today comes from everyone’s favorite book of the Bible, Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy is an account of the second giving of the Law, the Torah. The name Deuteronomy even means “second law.”

The Torah was first given to Moses at Mt. Sinai soon after the Israelites left Egypt, as is reported in the book of Exodus. To these Israelites, the Torah was the Bible, though it was not written and put into a form similar to what we have today until the time of the Babylonian Exile. Like the New Testament, the Hebrew Torah is an assembly of different authors writing at different times. Much of it was passed on from generation to generation through stories, oral tradition, and small written sections of the text.

Anyway, Moses receives the Torah at Mt. Sinai, which he records for future use. But the Hebrew people are not faithful to God and they end up taking the long way to the Promised Land. They wander in the wilderness for 40 years. Many people have passed away and many more have been born. To someone born as much as 39 years earlier, the accounts of slavery and oppression in Egypt would be just stories. All that they ever had known was wandering.

Today’s scripture is a retelling of that story; the retelling of their story. Sure, they have heard it all before. But it is time to hear it again. It is time to hear it again because the people are about to enter the Promised Land and this seems like an appropriate time to remember all that God has done for them.

Moses tells them that when they take possession of this land and settle in, they are to bring the first part of their spring harvest to their place of worship. When we think of the spring harvest, we tend to think of things like radishes, spinach, and lettuce. For the Hebrew people their spring harvest would have been small grains like barley and wheat, fruits like grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates (Deut. 8:8). These are the foods that can stand a little cold weather and are usually the first to be picked when things start to warm up. Most of us wouldn’t call wheat or barley “fruit” like today’s text does, but over 3,000 years ago when these words were first spoken they didn’t have the taxonomical categories that we have today. So let’s give them a little grace.

The people were to put the first fruits harvested each spring into a basket and take them to the priest at their place of worship. This is what we usually call a “First Fruits Offering.” Please note that there is no volume or percentage given here. They are not told to bring 10% of their spring harvest, but to bring their first fruits. Here the emphasis is on the giving of the first fruits.

What follows is very ritualistic. The Hebrew people were to say the same thing every year when they give their basket of first fruits to the priest: “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous…”

There is a bit of disagreement on the meaning of the phrase, “my father was a wandering Aramean.” Looking at this phrase as we tend to have it in our English translations, we would assume that the wandering Aramean was Jacob, who wandered in the region of Aram for 20 years. This fits the context well as God later gave Jacob the name Israel and he is the one who went down to Egypt and grew into a great nation.

But one of the challenges of translating from Hebrew is that the ancient Hebrew did not include any vowels. Without going into the details, some Hebrew scholars translate this passage as, “An Aramean tried to destroy my father,” referring to Laban’s efforts to trick Jacob into serving him rather than allowing him to begin his own family and farm. Laban is repeatedly referred to as “Laban the Aramean” in the book of Genesis.

The point of the alternate translation is that even before there was a people known as Israel, they faced challenges. Genesis 31:26 and 28a, “Then Laban said to Jacob, ‘What have you done? You’ve deceived me, and you’ve carried off my daughters like captives in war…I have the power to harm you.’” An Aramean did try to destroy Israel, even before there was an Israel.

The message is that the Hebrew people have struggled. They almost didn’t get out of Laban’s oppressive hands and tricky ways. And when they did, they eventually found themselves under the rule of Pharaoh.

Every generation has known pain and suffering. Every generation has known what it means to be afflicted. But now the people are entering into a land flowing with milk and honey. And Moses wants to make sure that they do not forget what God has brought them through to get where they are on that day.

But come on, Moses. Would the people really forget everything that they have been given? After all that God had done for them in bringing them out of Egypt and out of slavery, surely they would be filled with praise all day long! No, they grumbled. They weren’t out of Egypt three months before they started complaining. They complained about the food. They complained about the water. I’m sure it was too hot some days and too cold others. And it wasn’t as if they were not being taken care of. Their most basic needs were being met. But they didn’t like eating the manna after a short while. They wanted the cucumbers, melons, and leeks that they enjoyed while they were in slavery. Check out what is recorded in Numbers 14:4: “And they said to each other, ‘We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.’” I guess the foods of Egypt made the whole slavery thing a little more palatable.

It seems to me that no matter how much we have, we always manage to take it for granted and what it took to get it.

As I think back on the deteriorating condition of our roof, I can’t help but feel a bit guilty for the way that I have reacted to those leaks. I feel guilty because, yes, my roof might have some issues, but at least I have a roof over my head. Not everyone can say that.

I am looking forward to the day when a large rain storm comes and drops a couple of inches of rain on my house because I am going to just sit back and listen to the sound of the rain bouncing off the roof and appreciate that the rain is staying outside where it belongs. But what I am afraid of is that I will take it for granted after the first few storms. I am afraid that, like the Israelites who took the things that God had done for them for granted, I too will forget to be thankful for a roof that doesn’t leak or just the fact that I have a roof at all.

Check out what Moses has to say earlier in Deuteronomy 8:10-14: “10 When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. 11 Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. 12 Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, 13 and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, 14 then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.”

It seems to me that Moses knows that we tend to forget the things that we have and who has given them to us.

I recently heard about a myth that has plagued humanity for centuries. It is called “The Myth of the Self-Made Man.” That “man” is intended to be gender inclusive as it can apply to women just as easily as men.

The myth of the self-made man is the belief that everything that we have is ours because we have worked for it; we have earned it. And like most myths, there is an element of truth to this myth. If you work harder than everyone else and are smarter than everyone else you do have a greater chance of making financial gains. But it would be a mistake to think that everything that we have is a result of our hard work. It took the help of others along the way and it took being born into certain circumstances to achieve what we have achieved.

Maybe you are where you are because your parents are intelligent, hard-working people who passed on some of their genetics. Perhaps they also put you into a good school system as a child. And surely, if you have made significant gains in this world, it is because of the grace of God.

You see, when we forget that it was God who brought us out of Egypt, we tend to take all of the credit for the things we have and soon we have no need for God.

I know that I am not a self-made man. Sure, I have worked to get where I am and I am sure that you have as well. But I realize that the main reason that I have the comfortable life that I have is because I am blessed.

I could not afford to put a new roof on my house if it wasn’t for the help of others. 20 years ago my grandfather purchased a savings bond at a cost of $1,500 for each of his three grandchildren. Those savings bonds matured last year. It is because my grandfather gave me a gift all those years ago that I will soon have a roof that does not leak.

My hope is that every time I hear the rain drops fall on my roof, I will take the time to thank my grandfather. It is the simple rituals and routines that help us to remember all that we have been blessed with. That’s why we observe Lent.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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