First Sunday of Lent - Return To Me: My Father Was A Wandering Aramean

Today is the first Sunday of the season of Lent, and the beginning of our Lenten sermon series entitled, "Return To Me."  

This series is inspired by a phrase that is found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures--a phrase that is closely connected to repentance but is also much deeper and all-encompassing than mere penitence.  

The key verse for our particular journey, however, comes from Joel 2:12-13, which reads: 

12“Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “return to Me with all your heart, with fasting, weeping, and mourning.” 13 So rend your hearts and not your garments, and return to the LORD your God. For He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in loving devotion.

I've always been moved by this passage, mostly because of the way verse 13 starts off, "So rend your hearts and not your garments."  In other words, don't go through a big show of your piety, when your heart still might not be in the right place. 

And so this series will help us retrace our steps back to faithfulness, and enable us to discover the meaning of true repentance for the things we've done and left undone that have strained our relationship with God and others. 

It will take not only repentance on our part but also prayer and spiritual practices in order to return to the path that leads us to an abundant life.  So let's begin the journey. 

Today we're going to be focused on a very simple but profound truth:  Our return to faithfulness begins with storytelling.  More on that in a moment... 

But first, let me ask you something.  

Do you have family stories that get told and retold when your family gathers for events, holidays, special occasions, and the like?   

Most of us do, in fact.  And we share these tales of "Weal and Woe" for a reason that often escapes us.  "Weal and Woe" is an old way of saying joy and sadness, by the way, or success and failure.  

Our family’s stories—why our grandparents chose to leave their countries of origin, snippets of how our parents met, our mother’s bedtime stories, tales of our ancestors’ achievements whether real, embellished, or outright imaginary, are the stuff of who we are. They are the key to exploring what life is all about and they teach us that people from our past shape our present. Family stories connect the past and present to the future. - Mary Beth Sammons

Think about your own family stories.  What do they say about your family?  What do the stories of triumph tell you?  What about the stories of tragedy? 

These are the kinds of stories that mark our life together, and there's a psychology to it in the end that comes down to the most basic and intrinsic human need other than sustenance and safety:  to know and be known.  

Experts say when we can reminisce about events from the past and retell stories from our ancestors' lives we can gain greater self-esteem, the ability to be introspective during life’s challenges, and gain increased emotional understanding. - Mary Beth Sammons

But what happens when we lose the plot of our stories?  What happens when the stories that we tell become twisted, self-serving, or worse yet are simply forgotten?  

When that happens we run the risk of losing our sense of identity... our ability to empathize... our capacity for compassion.  We can even lose our connections with our loved ones or friends.  

It can be so disorienting, in fact, that we sometimes do everything we can to find certainty and security---even if it means forsaking the truth about ourselves and who we really are.  

As Christians, we need to stay connected to the story of salvation---the Great Big story of how God saved and is saving the world one precious life at a time, including our own.  

This is why we need liturgies, to help us stay connected.  Liturgies enable us to be true to our family history, but also realize that we have our own chapters to write within it and that God desires us to do just that.  

At our church, we embrace the vision, Love God, Love Everybody.  This shortened bit of liturgy comes from the Great Commandment---a passage of Jesus' own words that serve as liturgy, but also a family history. 

We're going to be exploring our lectionary text for today, which comes to us from Deuteronomy 26:1-11---a moment when God gave the Hebrew people a liturgy that would remind them of who they were, and whose they were.  

This passage also connected the Hebrew people to the larger call they had to love the Lord with all their heart, mind, and strength, and to love their neighbors as themselves.  

To Love God, Love Everybody---in other words. 

And so, with all of that in mind, this is the one thing that I want us to hold on to today: 


 Let's dig into the lectionary text for today which comes to us from Deuteronomy 26:1-11

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.
What are some of the things that we can notice right away as we read this strange passage from the Torah?  Well for starters, we can see how this passage reveals the deep connection that the worshippers had with their story. 

And they needed to because this passage was re-written and edited during tense moments in Israel's history--first in the 7th century BCE after the Assyrians conquered and dispersed the 10 tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel, and then later in the 6th century during the Babylonian captivity of the southern kingdom of Judah.  

When you are under duress and experiencing hardship, it's important to remember your stories.  

This whole passage speaks to the idea that God has drawn near to God's people, which given the circumstances, didn't make a lot of sense.  The people of God needed to be reminded of the stories of how God had shown up in their past, and how that informed their future.  

Telling the story created a connection with those who had come before them.  And it placed the worshippers firmly in the story of God's great grace.  

This passage shows thankfulness to God and care for the marginalized as the intertwined outcomes of their ongoing journey as a people.

I could preach a whole series on this one passage about why it is so vital for us to be a part of a worshipping community, to go to church, to get our kids here...  Telling God's great big story of salvation is an act that needs repeating.  

So what happens when we lose sight of this?  How does it go wrong?  

What was happening to the people of Israel is the same thing that happens to all of us.  They grew complacent, they were comfortable in their adaptation of the religions and cultural mores of the tribes of people around them, and they lost sight of their connection to God's story, and the part they played in it.  

Sadly, it was suffering that brought them back.  Only then did they begin to act authentically, and turn their hollow worship into something alive and vibrant... something that wasn't reserved for worship gatherings, but extended to all aspects of their lives.  

We lose our place in the story when we become complacent in our comfort rather than being agitated to action.  

Jesus addressed this directly once in Matthew chapter 15 when a group of overly religious and self-centered folks came to him with some issues.  They berated him for allowing his disciples to eat without first washing in elaborate ceremonial ways, according to their religious law. 

Jesus hits them with a passage of Scripture from the book of Isaiah where the prophet says: 
8 “‘These people honor me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me.
9 They worship me in vain;
    their teachings are merely human rules.’[c]”
Then Jesus turns to the crowd that had gathered when the religious leaders confronted him and said: 
“Listen and understand. 11 What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.”
Jesus was trying to tell them that they had become disconnected from the story.  They had lost the plot.  They had grown complacent in their comfort, with the way that they had always done it.  They were so caught up in being right, they got it wrong.  

They'd forgotten their own story.  

You see, the story of the faith of the Hebrew people outlined in Deuteronomy was the story of a "vertical/horizontal" response to grace and redemption:  To God & to others. 

This is what Jesus carries forward in Matthew 22:36-40 when he reveals the Greatest Commandment to a bunch of scholars and lawyers who were trying to drag him into a theological argument. 
36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Jesus reminds them that their faith is about both/and.  It's not just about saying that you love God.  You show your love for God in the way you love everybody.  

And the reason we know Jesus meant "everybody" is because when someone asked him "Who is my neighbor?" He told a story that demonstrated that anyone you meet has the potential to be your neighbor, so you may as well just figure out how to love everybody. 

I want to say this as plainly and emphatically as I can:  

Love God, Love Everybody is a story, not a slogan.  

It's a story that was woven through the history of this church, from its humble beginnings all the way down to this very day.  It's the story of a family of faith dedicated to showing the world what it looks like to live in the challenge of Jesus' own words. 

And these are Jesus' own words---not mine, not our church leaders... Jesus' own words.  That's the story that we need to be telling--the story of a community of faith who so wants to follow Jesus that it is willing to risk its own comfort in order to make space for grace for everyone. 

It's a story worth being passed down.  

One of the things that light me up more than anything is when I hear the children of our church repeat our vision back to their parents, their teachers and to one another---not as something that they've had drilled into them, but because it makes sense to them.  

Love God, Love Everybody is a story that makes sense.  

And what does this story say about who we are, and whose we are? It demonstrates that we are doing our very best to not just say that we follow Jesus, but to actually follow Jesus, which is a lot harder than saying it.  

If you want to be the kind of community that makes space for grace for everyone, there will be discomfort sometimes.  When you set a bigger table so that everyone has a seat, there will always be some who feel like their seat was taken.  

Trust me on this---there are enough seats for everyone.  And there's enough pie to go around.  That's how God works.  The pie never runs out, can I get a witness?   

It's not easy to be in a community when we have differences, but it is our differences that can be our strength if we are willing to hold on to one another anyway.  

I get it, though.  Some folks prefer to have a table where everyone at least appears to believe the same things, and the conversation never has to get real.  

But that's not a real community.  Real community happens when we truly see one another in all of our brokenness and beauty and we discover the common ground that unites all of us:  Jesus, and his command to Love God, Love Everybody. 

We're still working on this story at Shepherd, but I know that the next chapters are going to be amazing.  



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