Category: Hebrew Bible

Judgment Day — Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 6C (Amos 8)

Amos8:1-12 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
This is what the Lord God showed me—a basket of summer fruit. He said, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A basket of summer fruit.” Then the Lord said to me,
“The end has come upon my people Israel;
I will never again pass them by.
The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day,”
says the Lord God;
“the dead bodies shall be many,
cast out in every place. Be silent!”
Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
and bring to ruin the poor of the land,
saying, “When will the new moon be over
so that we may sell grain;
and the sabbath,
so that we may offer wheat for sale?
We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,
and practice deceit with false balances,
buying the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
and selling the sweepings of the wheat.”
The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.
Shall not the land tremble on this account,
and everyone mourn who lives in it,
and all of it rise like the Nile,
and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt?
On that day, says the Lord God,
I will make the sun go down at noon,
and darken the earth in broad daylight.
10 I will turn your feasts into mourning,
and all your songs into lamentation;
I will bring sackcloth on all loins,
and baldness on every head;
I will make it like the mourning for an only son,
and the end of it like a bitter day.
11 The time is surely coming, says the Lord God,
when I will send a famine on the land;
not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water,
but of hearing the words of the Lord.
12 They shall wander from sea to sea,
and from north to east;
they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord,
but they shall not find it.
 
**********************
 

            There are men, women, and children held in cages at the southern border. Many are refugees fleeing violence in their homelands. The polls suggest that a majority of white Protestants do not believe that the United States has any responsibility for refugees. What might Scripture say to this polling? What might the prophet Amos have to say to us who claim to be servants of God? The first reading for the sixth Sunday after Pentecost takes us back to Amos. In the previous reflection, I examined Amos’ encounter with the religious establishment in the northern kingdom of Israel as revealed in Amos 7. He was told by the priest to go back home and take care of things there. You see, Amos came from the southern kingdom of Judah, a kingdom that was a vassal to the richer and more powerful northern neighbor. The folks in the north didn’t care for Amos’ message. Now we come to chapter 8. Amos will not be silenced. He becomes even more pointed in his word of judgment. Of course, Amos doesn’t claim to be a prophet. He’s just a farmer sent on a mission. This isn’t his profession. It’s not his day job. He’d rather be back home tending to his farm. But God had other plans. God had a message and Amos is the chosen messenger. Isn’t that like God, to choose the unexpected person to deliver the message? Prophet after prophet asked who am I that you would send me. Jesus came out of a small town in a backwater area to reveal the truths of God to humanity.

 

            God has a message for the people of Israel: “the end has come.” In a passage that begins with the image of the abundance of summer fruit ends with a word about famine (of the Word of God). Throughout the passage, the message is clear: Things might look good at the moment, but judgment day is on the horizon. At the moment things were going well economically in Israel under Jeroboam II, the greatest of the northern kingdom’s monarchs. While Jeroboam and his friends were doing well, it apparently came at the expense of the people. God is not impressed. Judgment is at hand. The songs of the temple, which were probably songs of praise, will become songs of grief. Wailing will be the predominant voice in the temple—the one that would not welcome Amos into its midst.

 

            Scripture doesn’t prescribe a political system. We who live in the United States experience a very different context from what was experienced in the centuries in which Scripture emerged, including the Book of Amos. Israel under Jeroboam II wasn’t a democracy. Instead, monarchies, oligarchies, tribal chieftains, and empires provided the context for these messages. Prophets would speak to these realities, holding the powers of the day to account. They most often spoke on behalf of those whom Jesus in Matthew 25 called “the least of these.”

 

            The Word of the Lord came to Amos, who delivered to the political and religious leadership in Israel has a definite economic tenor: “Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land,” judgment is coming. You will seek a word from the Lord, and you will not find it. You will grow frustrated, but the reality is, you’ve set something in motion that you don’t seem willing to stop. Instead, you monkey with the financial system, so it benefits the powerful at the expense of the people. Some of us might remember the financial debacle of 2008. Amos declared: you buy “the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals.” The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It’s not a recent thing. It’s been going on for millennia. The Word of the Lord consistently calls the perpetrators of injustice to account.

 

            The declaration that comes to Israel is apocalyptic in nature: “On that day, says the Lord God, I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight.” On that day God will turn their “feasts into mourning, and all [their] songs into lamentation.” The day of judgment will come. The day might look bright at the moment, but the clouds are on the horizon. A day of bitterness is coming, so be prepared. Famine is on the horizon, but not one involving bread. It’s a famine of silence. God is finished speaking to Israel. They’ll run to and fro seeking guidance, but it will be too late. Prophets have come and gone, and they have been ignored. So, God is finished with them. They have chosen their pathway and they will suffer the consequences.

 

The word of God revealed through Amos is not a happy one. I would rather hear a word of grace. I want to be comforted. Words of judgment are difficult to hear (and to be made the center of a sermon). The question is, do we need to hear words like this to get our attention. Things were going well for the northern kingdom at that moment, but dangerous times were ahead. Within a few decades, this nation will disappear from history.

 

How should we hear this word, we who embrace the premise that God is love? How does judgment factor in? God appears in Amos as a rather angry figure. It’s justified, but it’s unsettling. But perhaps love for creation requires a bit of anger on God’s part.  So, we come back to that poll that suggests that a majority of white Christians, haven’t been paying attention to the prophetic words that are present in Scripture. Now, that might be due to silence on the part of the preachers. Martin Luther King responded to white preachers who told him to take it slow and easy. Don’t be so forceful in your message. Dr. King responded to their counsel from the Birmingham jail. Could it be that many in the churches are no longer attentive to the word of God? Is there a famine of the Word in our midst? It’s not that the prophetic word has been silenced, it’s just that we tend not to listen.

 

The way I understand prophetic ministry—in its biblical context—is that the future is not predetermined. Israel could change its ways. It could listen. It could turn (think of Jonah’s message to Nineveh, which though fictional is a good reminder that repentance forestalls judgment).  The question is, will it/we listen before the prophetic voice goes silent? Will we? 

           

Picture attribution: Caillebotte, Gustave, 1848-1894. Fruit Displayed on a Stand, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=50942 [retrieved July 15, 2019]. Original source: http://www.mfa.org/.

 

Advertisements

Not Measuring Up? — A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 5C (Amos 7)

Amos the Herdsman – Amiens Cathedral
 
 
This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. And the Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said,
“See, I am setting a plumb line
in the midst of my people Israel;
I will never again pass them by;
the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate,
and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste,
and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”
10 Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. 11 For thus Amos has said,
‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword,
and Israel must go into exile
away from his land.’”


12 And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; 13 but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”
14 Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, 15 and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’

 

16 “Now therefore hear the word of the Lord.
You say, ‘Do not prophesy against Israel,
and do not preach against the house of Isaac.’


17 Therefore thus says the Lord:
‘Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city,
and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword,
and your land shall be parceled out by line;
you yourself shall die in an unclean land,
and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.’”
**************

                The prophet Amos wasn’t what you would call a “court preacher.” He wasn’t employed by the monarchy or the religious establishment. In other words, he wasn’t a spiritual advisor to the king. As far as the monarchy and the religious leaders were concerned, he was a nuisance who brought to the land unwelcome messages. He made people feel uncomfortable. And Amos didn’t seem to care. Besides, he came to Israel from down south, from the rural community of Tekoa in Judah. According to Amos, God sent him to speak words of judgment against Jeroboam II and his regime that ruled over the northern kingdom of Israel, despite the fact that he came out of a vassal kingdom. Why bother with him. He was just a disgruntled neighbor, from a less powerful and important realm. When Amos came north, he encountered a nation that was its height. This was the reign of Jeroboam II (r. 786-746 BCE), one of the most powerful and successful monarchs in Israel’s history. So, why bother with this troublemaker?  

 

Sometimes we preachers want to think of ourselves as the spiritual descendants of a prophet like Amos, but I doubt the moniker fits most of us. He was too much like the guy standing at the corner with the sandwich board declaring that the end is near at hand. No, there must be a better model for us than him. Yet, here we are, with Amos standing before us, bringing what he says is another message from God. He offers Jeroboam a word from God about a plumb line.

Plumb lines, which were strings with weights attached, that was used to make sure the walls of the building were built straight and true from top to bottom. If they weren’t, the typical two-story house of that region would collapse. You don’t want that. Jeroboam and his kingdom might seem to be prospering. The stock market might be on the upswing. Employment numbers are good. The military is strong. The nation’s enemies are being kept at bay. Yet, here’s the Word of the Lord—you’re not measuring up. If you don’t get your act together you will soon collapse. History is on the side of Amos. Jeroboam might die with Israel at its height, but a quarter century later the Assyrian’s would march in and lay waste to the nation. The people of Israel and Judah might be related. They were neighbors. But they were also rivals. One nation survived (at least for a time) and the other disappeared from the map.

Amos delivered his message to an unreceptive audience. The priest at Bethel, the capital of the northern kingdom, a man by the name of Amaziah, told Amos to go home. Go earn a living elsewhere. This was the king’s sanctuary. It was his temple. He set the rules. There is a principle that was widely used in the period after the Reformation as differing religious entities took root in Europe. The principle goes by the name of Erastianism. The idea is that the religion of the king is the religion of the people—consider that Henry VIII and his successors (to this day) declared themselves the Head of the Church. That’s what Amaziah was trying to communicate to Amos. Go home. Your message is a foreign one. It doesn’t fit with what the king has decreed. Besides, the king is successful. He’s rich. He’s powerful. As for Amaziah, he represented a religious elite that supported and sustained a system that oppressed the people. The word of God was that he would get his just desserts.

Amos is not your typical preacher. As I said, he’s a bit like that street preacher with his sandwich board. He’s parked outside the Temple, annoying everyone who comes into contact with him. When Amaziah tells to go home and prophesy elsewhere (earn your living somewhere else), Amos simply says:  “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’” He told the priest that he was just a simple farmer, a layperson, who didn’t want to come north. It wasn’t his idea. No one was paying him for this. In fact, he had to leave behind his fields and flocks to make the journey.  But when God said go, he went. He was standing there before the temple because God said: “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.”

                Amaziah told Amos to go away, don’t prophesy here. But Amos persisted. He delivered the message God had given him for Israel and for Amaziah. What is the message? Your land will be taken. Your people will die by the sword or go into exile. Things might look good right now, but before you know it, things will turn bad. Why?  Because you’re not following the ways of God. While the passage doesn’t spell things out, we will get there. It has something to do with justice.

                Speaking truth to power isn’t easy. It can be dangerous. Think about St. Oscar Romero, the martyred Archbishop of San Salvador, El Salvador, who was murdered while saying the mass in his chapel because he dared to oppose the political leadership that was oppressing the people. Now, he was a religious leader and not a layperson. But others have taken up the mantle of speaking truth to power. Lay people can be the most effective voices for justice. That is true here. Amos draws attention to the injustices of the day, injustices that had caught the attention of God.

What are we called to do? Amos heard the call and heeded it, even though he didn’t have any prophetic credentials. He was a farmer, not a preacher or a theologian. It’s not that we preachers and theologians don’t have our place, but the voice of God can and does come through the voice of the people. As for the religious leaders, we out to be circumspect. When we become the mouthpieces of an oppressive regime or when we justify unjust acts—the detention of refugee children in overcrowded and filthy camps—what might God have to say? How do we measure up?    

Picture Attribution:  Amos the Herdsman, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=29259 [retrieved July 8, 2019].

 

Passing the Mantle — Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 3C (2 Kings 2)

2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 

2 Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. 2 Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel. 

6 Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. 7 Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. 8 Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground. 

9 When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” 10 He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” 11 As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. 12 Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces. 

13 He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. 14 He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.

********************

                As I grow older and can see retirement on the horizon, texts like this begin to speak more loudly. I’m not Elijah or Elisha. At one level, I don’t claim to be a prophet in the form that these two figures take. At the same time, as an ordained minister, who has preached most Sundays for the past twenty-one years, I hear in this story a word spoken to my own journey. To preach requires the Spirit. The same is true for all acts of ministry. Different people will have different takes on this passage. Personal context matters. For me, it’s that sense of seeing the current pathway closing. In other words, I’ve begun to see more clearly that a time when the mantle must be passed on to the next generation. In fact, a few years back, when I was inducted into the College of Fellows of the Academy of Parish Clergy, I saw this as a recognition of a call to assist younger clergy in furthering their journeys. This is an important calling since at least half of all clergy will leave the ministry within five years of ordination. Many leave due to disillusionment. Some of that disillusionment rests at the feet of older clergy who may feel threatened by the emerging generations. Instead of offering to help with the passage into the future, they cut themselves off and important forms of wisdom don’t get passed on. When God said to Elijah that he should anoint Elisha as his successor, Elijah could have resisted. He could have felt threatened. But Elijah understood the need to mentor his successor. So, he took up the task (1 Kings 19).

 

This passage also came to mind as I was planning for my upcoming sabbatical. The grant application the congregation was submitting required a theme, and we chose “River Crossings” because that spoke the journey ahead.  A time of transition stands on the horizon for me as a pastor and for the congregation I serve. So, stories that speak of transition stand out. There is the story of Moses, who led the people to the Jordan but didn’t cross over. That was left to his apprentice, Joshua. Elijah crossed the river, together with his apprentice, Elisha. Once they crossed the Jordan, Elijah passed the mantle. These are two images of transition. The one before us pictures Elijah and Elisha crossing the river, but in the end, it is Elisha that continues the ministry that had once been Elijah’s. His ministry would be different from his predecessor, but Elijah was willing to serve as his guide.

                These two figures can leave us confused. Who comes first, Elijah or Elisha? The writers of 2 Kings, let us know that it is Elijah first and then Elisha. When last we saw Elijah in the lectionary readings, he had fled to the desert, where he hoped to die, feeling abandoned. His cry to God was something like “Woe is me, nobody likes me, everybody hates me.” (1 Kings 19:1-15). After that experience in the desert, Elijah is told to anoint “Elisha, son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place.” With that instruction, Elijah found Elisha plowing his field and threw his mantle over him, and after a bit of negotiation, Elisha followed Elijah, becoming his apprentice (1 Kings 19:16,19-21). Now it was time to pass the mantle. It was time for Elijah to leave and Elisha to take his place. This didn’t occur until Elijah had fully instructed his apprentice, and for his part, Elisha is faithful in his following of Elijah. Elijah is the more famous of the two, but both men spoke for God to a people who didn’t always appreciate the message.

                The passage begins with Elijah and Elisha heading out from Gilgal. Elijah told his apprentice to stay behind as he headed to Bethel, but Elisha declared his desire to continue on with his master. When they arrived at Bethel, the disciples of the prophets came out and warned Elisha that God would be taking Elijah away from him. He acknowledged the fact. Elijah and Elisha would repeat this pattern regarding staying behind at each juncture on the path to the place where God would take Elijah. Each time Elisha pledged to stay with him. As they made the journey from Bethel to Jericho and then to the Jordan, fifty disciples of the prophets followed along with them, but at a distance, until they reached the Jordan. Here is where the moment of transition begins.

 

                Once again, Elisha is told to stay behind, as Elijah follows his path beyond the Jordan, but Elisha refuses. At this point, Elijah takes his cloak or mantle, rolls it up, and then slaps the water of the Jordan with it. With that, the water of the river divides, much like it did when Joshua led the people of Israel into the Promised Land. Though, on this occasion, Elijah intends to cross to the other side, out of the Promised Land. As they cross the river, Elisha having demonstrated his loyalty to Elijah, his master asks him: “what can I do for you before I am taken from you?”  Elisha answers: “Let a double portion of your spirit pass on to me.” (vs. 9 Tanakh). That’s asking for a lot, says Elijah. But, he’s open to the possibility, as long as Elisha keeps his focus on his master as he is taken up into the whirlwind. If not, if he fails to keep his concentration on Elijah’s departure, the deal’s off. All along the way, from Gilgal to this moment, it seems as if Elijah is testing Elisha’s resolve. This will be the last test before the mantle is passed.

                It is at this point, as they are walking and talking that a fiery chariot descends from the heavens and sweeps in to take Elijah from the earth. And as Elisha watched Elijah taken up into the whirlwind, he cries out “oh father, oh father.” When he could no longer see his master, he took his garments and tore them in grief. With that expression of mourning, Elisha picked up the mantle of his master, which Elijah had dropped. He struck the river, which parted, and he crossed over. Here is the evidence—Elisha has the spirit, perhaps more than did Elijah.  He is the heir. His turn has come. Thus, begins a new chapter, a new ministry.

Life is like that. It never stands still. Elijah was a great prophet. In actuality, his prophetic efforts were probably grander than those of Elisha, but there comes a time for the mantle to be passed. In this story, Elijah is taken from the earth. He doesn’t die; he simply is taken up. Only Enoch has the same experience. That is, “Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, for God took him” (Gen. 5:24 Tanakh). Elijah walks with God and God takes him. Elijah had his struggles. He had his victories, but he also had to flee. But the ministry goes on. A new person steps to the plate. He has shown his mettle. He stood steadfastly with his mentor. He didn’t aside and follow another pathway.  But he went forward in the spirit, having received the same spirit that empowered Elijah. The mantle, the cloak, is not the source of power but is the symbol of a spiritual power that Elisha discerned was necessary to fulfill his calling.  And off he goes, in the spirit. The same is true for us. To fulfill our callings, whether we would term them prophetic or not, requires the presence of the Spirit of God.

Picture Attribution:  Swanson, John August. Elijah, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56543 [retrieved June 24, 2019]. Original source: http://www.JohnAugustSwanson.com – copyright 2008 by John August Swanson.

               
                 

 

First Fruits of Liberation – Lectionary Reflection for Lent 1C (Deuteronomy 26)

Deuteronomy 26:1-11 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

26 When you have come into 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 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 for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.” 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 before the Lord your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. 11 Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.

**************
          We have begun the Lenten journey. In the reading from the Gospel, Jesus has begun his sojourn in the Wilderness, where he will be tested (Luke 4:1-11). The people of Israel had been a wandering people and they two were tested.
          The people of Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty years. That is the scriptural message, whether we take it literally or not. As the people of Israel draw near the river that separates them from the Promised Land, they are given instructions by God through Moses. The word we hear in Deuteronomy 26 envisions the people settling in, putting down roots, planting crops, and then harvesting the crops. With this assumption in mind, the call for first fruits is given. When the time comes to beginning harvesting the crops, the people are to take the first fruits of that harvest, put it in a basket and then bring it to the designated place where the priest will receive it. In doing this the people honor the God who liberated them from bondage, the God who was with them throughout the years of wandering and is now with them as they settle into life in the Land.
As we begin the Lenten journey, might we hear this word that comes to us from the Hebrew Bible as a call to worship and a call to stewardship? There is a liturgy involved, which reminds us that stewardship is an act of worship and not merely the means of paying bills. While it is a call to stewardship, it is also a call to share the proceeds of the harvest with others, most specifically the Levites (priestly class) and the “aliens who reside among you,” the bounty that God provides. Stewardship, it seems has something to do with sharing. It’s a concept we were supposed to learn in kindergarten, if not before, but a concept that is easily forgotten. Thus, instructions must be given.
As the offerings are brought to the altar, the people make a declaration of faith. They are called upon to remember from whence they came. Who am I? That is a question that continue to get asked. It’s a question that leads us to do genealogical work and check our DNA. In this confession, the people acknowledge that “A wandering Aramean is my ancestor.” The people of Israel, having finally found a place to settle in, are reminded by this confession that they have been a nomadic people. Their DNA is rooted in the tribes and people of Aram, which is the land of Syria and Southeastern Turkey.
So, who is this ancestor? Is it Abraham and Sarah? Yes. Is it Isaac and Rebecca? Yes. Is it Jacob and his family? Yes. In fact, it’s Jacob and his family who went down to Egypt and settled, only to discover that there was to be no security in that land. The initial benefits of living in Egypt proved fleeting. In time the wandering Aramean and family, though small in number, became a great nation. That led the Egyptians to feel threatened. They feared that a time would come when this tribe could gain enough strength to change the nature of Egyptian society. Does that sound familiar? Could it be a reason why some wish to build walls to keep “those people” from adding to their numbers? Is it a reason why there is a growing resistance to welcoming refugees to our shores? One scholar has even translated the opening declaration as “A wandering Syrian refugee is my ancestor.” So, as we contemplate this reading, could there be something of Egypt in our souls?
The confession remembers that Jacob’s descendants were treated harshly. They were sentenced to hard labor. When the descendants of this wandering Aramean cried out to God, their voices were heard. God saw the people being oppressed, and so God acted to liberate the people, bringing them into the Promised Land. Now, it is time to honor that God by bringing offerings to God as a sign of gratitude.
This reading from Deuteronomy speaks of a land that will be filled with milk and honey, a land of abundance. The confession serves as a reminder that the people of Israel are themselves immigrants and descendants of immigrants. They may have found a home, where they can settle in, put down roots, plant crops, but it is not a land to be possessed. It is a land to be received as a gift of God, to be shared. William Greenway writes of this concern: “by anchoring Israelite identity in an immigrant, a ‘wandering Aramean’; by reminding the Israelites that they were themselves poor, marginalized, oppressed strangers in a strange land; and by urging them to share their bounty ‘together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you’ (so, no ritual or ethnic sectarianism; all attend to the basic needs of and break bread with all).” [Joel B. Green, Thomas G. Long, Luke A. Powery & Cynthia L. Rigby. Connections:A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship: 2 (Kindle Locations 1143-1146)].  Do we remember from whence we came? Do we come to the altar bearing expressions of first fruits, or what is left over from our abundance? Are willing to share, and what does that mean?
As you read this confession, you may notice that the person is to speak this confession as if experiencing the whole. This is a community confession that identifies the person with the community, and not just the present community, but the historical community. One’s current identity is rooted in one’s ancestry. What happened to Jacob and his descendants matters. We who are part of the family of Jesus, by adoption, have been brought in to this ancient tribe. We too are called to bring first fruits and acknowledge that our ancestors are wanderers, and thus we too should tread lightly on the land that is not ours but belongs to God. With this reminder that we are in many ways, spiritually, on journeys that involve a lot of wandering. We may have settled in and put down roots, but it is important that we continue to honor the one who liberated us, and we do this by being good stewards of God’s abundance.