Sunday, September 6, 2015

Never forget

Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. 200,000 people in tents.


You know how whenever the school year starts, a whole bunch of time is spent reiterating the rules? Or when you pick up a sequel to a book, the whole first chapter or two tells you again who the main characters are and what they’re all about? Well, we are starting over in the Old Testament, friends, and even though we just had the Ten Commandments last year, these things bear repeating, and, this is actually a different iteration of them, with a different context.

The first time we heard them, Moses had just come down the mountain and delivered the message to the people – here is what life with God at the center looks like, here is what our lives as the people of God will look like.

But the people turned away from God and made for themselves an idol, and God told them that none of them would enter into the promised land, so forty years goes by and they wander in the desert, eating manna, and I imagine, being shaped as a people just as much by their wandering rootless existence as they were by the slavery they endured in Egypt.

When a generation’s turn was over and their children were adults, Moses gathered them together on the threshold of the Promised Land to tell them again – here is what it means to have God at the center, and here is what it means to live as the people of God.

And he addresses them first by saying – these are your words from God- they weren’t just given to your parents; they belong to you, they define you.  And Moses proceeds to again tell them what in Hebrew are called The Ten Words.
There is a very little difference between the first telling and the second one, in fact, they are all identical except for the Sabbath command, but what is different is quite significant.

In Exodus the Sabbath command says Observe the Sabbath, and then gives the rationale…For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

So the people, who have come from a relentless kind of existence as slaves, are given the command now as they set out on their journey to the Promised Land, that they are to observe the Sabbath because they are made in the image of a God who rests.  Their lives are not defined by their slavery; they are human beings with worth, children of God, brought into God’s rest.

But in the Deuteronomy version, a generation later, after they’ve ostensibly been living with these Ten Words guiding their lives their whole lives, it says this:

Remember the Sabbath, and then it goes on to say why the command says that everybody should rest, including livestock and slaves and strangers in the land…so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

As they stand, a migrant people, on the threshold of what will be their home, God is reminding them again what kind of life they are made for and what it will look like to share that life with others.  Sabbath tells them, through rest, that they are responsible to shape a different kind of life for all, one that keeps in mind that they were once enslaved, and that God delivered them. By stopping work and resting together, the whole community is restored to the way of God – if only for one day every week – where people are all worthy and valuable by another standard than the one the world of commerce and caste tells us is true every other day.

This week the global immigration crisis has come to the forefront-  millions of displaced people in what is being called the greatest humanitarian crisis since WWII and the biggest mass migration in modern times. People dying in the sea because a paid smuggler and rubber raft is safer than staying in the war-ravaged rubble of no-longer home.  Hundreds of thousands in refugee camps, living in tents, thousands a day arriving on the threshold of new countries, not knowing what they will face.

And so this week, awareness of this story unfolding around us has been the backdrop of our scripture text for me, and I can’t help but be reminded again that the very origins of our faith story is here.  Our forefathers and foremothers were almost all migrants.  In fact, throughout all of scripture, the people God chooses and those through whom God consistently works are homeless, exiled, and wandering people without a whole lot going for them by the world’s standards as the moment God claims them and uses them in his schemes of salvation and hope. 

There are things we say over and over again because they tell us something about our identity or purpose as a people – the pledge of allegiance at baseball games, the karate creed before class begins, the girl scout law, the 12 steps. 
A little later in Deuteronomy, this book of instruction, is a direction from God, a creed to be spoken every year in their new home when they’ve settled down and made a life for themselves, that each person was supposed to say when they would bring their first portions of the harvest to the Lord’s house on the Feast of Pentecost (First Fruits), and it goes like this:
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 (Syrian) 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. 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. (Dest. 26:5-10)

Every year, at this festival when they brought their offerings of gratitude and trust to God they were to speak aloud a reminder, “that they descended from wanderers who had often depended on the merciful hospitality of strangers to survive.” Scholar Harvey C Kwiyani explains,, “This is their history. This is their identity. Deuteronomy 26 is talking about Jacob (whose mother was a Syrian, married two Syrian women, and raised up his children in Syria for a long time). But, at a distant, we can tell they would have Abraham in mind for he was a Syrian by birth. There is no telling of Jewish history apart from migration.”

In fact, cast your mind back in the scriptures – Adam and Eve ousted from the garden, Noah and his family settling a new earth, Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Leah and Rachel, Joseph bringing the family into Egypt, Moses and the Israelites fleeing Egypt… and it continues on with the prophets of the Exile and onward to Jesus and Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt, and much of the early church story…

All throughout scripture, the people God chooses are the outsiders and migrants, those who know what it is to be displaced, to be at the mercy of strangers.  Jesus himself had no home of his own, and when he sends out his disciples he tells them to bring nothing but the clothes on their back – go and rely on the hospitality of strangers to survive as you bring to them the message of hope, the gospel of God.

Why is this so?
Why does God choose to have so much of our faith story in the hands of those who are journeying and unsettled?

Maybe that’s because, in the real reality, we are all this. 
Maybe it’s to remind us that here is not our true home.  We are always searching, always a little bit fish out of water, always relying on the hospitality of each other and giving that to others, in the journey to what will really feel like life as it was meant to be, at home in the very presence of God.

All this time we’ve been talking about the Kingdom of God, about another reality that is more real than the one we are living – where we exist with and for each other instead of against each other, where we are meant to live in trust instead of fear, in generosity instead of stinginess. 
And God is taking these people here in today’s scripture about to settle into a “home” – (which, by the way, displaces others!), and there is a warning here in this, an urgency to this reiteration of the Way of God in the Ten Words – don’t forget!
Don’t forget where you came from; don’t forget whose you really are. 

Because things are going to change when you see yourself as “settled,” when you begin to feel as though you belong and you and your children and your grandchildren adjust to the comforts of power and predictability, and forget what it was to be rootless. 

It’s one thing to rely on God when, every single day, your very food – your only food, comes directly from God out of the sky, when you have no other existence than this dependent one of transition between places, sharing the journey with each other without settling, without staying, without an identity that can come from vocation and labor, from wealth and success or place in society.

You’ve been off the grid for your whole life, the identity as slaves has slowly been drained out of you and been replaced, hopefully, with an awareness of what it means to trust God, and be in this with each other – and God doesn’t want you to forget this.
Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise...
Don’t forget whose you are! Don’t forget who you are!

Sisters and brothers, we are not from here; this place is not our final home. We are all in transition, on a journey, hopefully growing in our trust of God alongside, with and for each other, instead of against each other.  
Both our ancestors and our future remind us of this truth – there will be a day when we will be at home in God, when nobody will be hungry or thirsty or without shelter or voice or hope. When love will be the rule. We were made to live that way.
And we should never settle in so much that we forget this.

We should never just accept that life as we know it now is what it is meant to be or will be.  God is calling us to live another way.
We must see one another; we must see our sisters and brothers who are feeling their homelessness more than we are, who are journeying more literally you and I at the moment, who have had what was secure taken from them and find themselves at the mercy of the hospitality of strangers. 
And in the times that you or I are the ones feeling acutely our own displacement or transition, our own rootlessness or journey, and we, like Jesus’ parents, and Paul in Damascus, and the children of Israel and Father Abraham and all the rest gone before, like God incarnate who came vulnerable and dependent into this world, are without resources and forced to rely on the love and care of others, when we do, we will meet God, because that is where God is most with us.

When we look at the world and wonder where God is, what God is up to, we should look where God has always been – with those who are suffering, those who are journeying, those who are in need, with and for us, alongside us, that is where Jesus always is. 

So this week, when I looked for Emmanuel, God with us, I saw Jesus in the heartbreaking photo of Aylan Kurdi’s father, holding his little shrouded body at his funeral with what is left of his beleaguered community gathered around him. 
And I saw the Kingdom of God in the overwhelming response of 10,000 Icelanders who told their government that despite their nation’s quota of 50 immigrants, they were willing to open their homes to welcome in those in need-  “I’m happy to look after children, take them to kindergarten, school and wherever they need. I can cook for people and show them friendship and warmth. I can pay the airfare for one small family. I can contribute with my expertise and assist pregnant women with pre-natal care.”

I saw the love and life of Christ in the wealthy family who runs their own Mobile Immigrant rescue ship – meeting boats in the sea and providing medical care, food and water, rescuing thousands of people.
 
Hungarian woman and man on the freeway with
food and water for Syrian refugees approaching on foot
I saw God-with-us in the trail of people walking across Hungary into Austria, holding sleeping children and supporting tired friends, and I saw the Kingdom of God, Christ alongside us, in the Hungarian men and women who went out and bought crates of food and lined up on the side of the highway in anticipation of those who would soon be walking past.

I got a glimpse of God’s Kingdom when the crowd of German men, women and children who left work and home and gathered with only their voices and their hands, cheered and applaud their to welcome to the weary refugees as they passed across the border into Germany.
I see you. You are my sister; you are my brother. You are not alone. You are welcome here.

Remember, God says. Don’t forget.
I am giving you life in a different way, my way.  Not a way of slavery.  Not a way of isolated independence. Not a way of dominance or self-advancement.  A way of sacrifice and love. A way of joining and sharing. The way you were made for to begin with. 
I am the Way.
It begins with me.
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
And, Jesus summarizes the rest of the law, Love your neighbor as yourself.

I alone, I am Lord. No ruler or pressure or prestige, no rat race, or religion, or regret. 
I am your God.
Love me.  Listen to me. Find your home in me.  I will be at the center of it all. I will care for you. 
And I will show you what it means to be my people. Join me in loving each other, welcoming each other, treating one another with respect and honor.
If you do this, it will go well for you in the land in which you are living, the land in which you wander.  And one day, I will bring you home.

Sisters and brothers, as we sharing the journey, the seemingly settled times and the times of obvious upheaval and redirection: may we never forget where we come from or where we are going, never abandon or ignore those alongside us, and never turn from the One who is at the center of it all. 
Amen.

1 comment: