Deuteronomy 26:1-11 – You shall share your first fruits with the Levites (priests) and aliens as a response to God’s awesome acts of salvation, for you were once sojourners in Egypt.
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 – Eagles’ Wings. Lest you strike your foot against a stone, which the devil quotes to Jesus in the wilderness, in the gospel, below.
Romans 10:8b-13 – Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. Jew and Greek. There is no distinction. But they can’t call upon him if they haven’t heard. Blessed are those who bring good news.
Luke 4:1-13– Jesus tempted by the devil in the wilderness. The devil quotes Scripture (Ps. 91).
Return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.
– Joel 2
March 6 – Ash Wednesday: Dust. Ashes. Mortality. Repentance. Fasting. Don’t show off your piety.
March 10 – Lent 1C: First fruits for the Levite and alien. Jesus is tempted by Satan in the wilderness.
March 17 – Lent 2C: Abram’s call. Faith reckoned as righteousness. Jesus laments for Jerusalem.
March 24 – Lent 3C: Repent, for there is only so much time left for the fig tree to bear fruit.
March 31 – Lent 4C: Lost sheep. Lost sons.
April 7 – Lent 5C: I am about to do a new thing… Mary anoints Jesus’ feet.
April 14 – Palm/Passion Sunday: Jesus entry into Jerusalem as an anti-triumph.
The Prodigal God
For those reading Timothy Keller’s book The Prodigal God: recovering the heart of the Christian Faith, study guide, DVD:
Lent 1 – Chapter 1: The People Around Jesus
Lent 2 – Chapter 2: The Two Lost Sons
Lent 3 – Chapter 3: Redefining Sin
Lent 4 – Chapter 4: Redefining Lostness
Lent 5 – Chapter 5: The True Elder Brother
Palm Sunday – Chapters 6 and 7: Redefining Hope, The Feast of the Father
Deuteronomy 26:1-11 – Sharing 101
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. 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. 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.
First fruits. “A wandering Aramean was my father.” Abraham was a resident alien. The Lord brought us out of the land of Egypt. There is a lot to this passage. Celebrate the bounty with the aliens among you.
In the second half of my life, having reflected on global conflict and the concept of Manifest Destiny we were taught as school children, I find myself more and more troubled by passages that claim God has given us this land. This kind of theology has resulted in the genocide of many native peoples throughout history.
I have only begun to learn about the Native Americans in the Houston area. The Atakapa lived from what is now Houston to what is now New Orleans, in several bands: Opelousas, Alligator, Snake, and the Akokisas. The synod office now sits on land that once belonged to the Karankawas (see the historical marker placed at Jamaica Beach on Galveston Island) or the Akokisas (a band of the aforementioned Atakapa, who lived along Galveston Bay, and the lower Trinity and San Jacinto Rivers in what is now the greater Houston area). One of these (probably the Karankawas) was the first band of Native Americans reported here by Cabeza de Vaca in 1535. “The Spaniards’ journals give in-depth descriptions of life in the community—creating dugout canoes, fishing, gathering plants for food and medicine, and building different shelters to accommodate the seasons.” ( http://www.houstonfamilymagazine.com/2013/10/31/houstons-native-american-heritage-runs-deep/ ) Their property was taken away from them, despite Sam Houston’s attempts to protect them. Things, as you can imagine, did not end well.
History is always written by the winners. The victors even have the power to rename a place. The heavily-tatooed Karankawas (sometimes referred to as the Kronk) lived along the coast down to Corpus Christi. They waded from the shallow waters in the bays to the deep pools with lances or bows and arrows, to spear fish. They ate stone crabs, oysters, mussels, sea turtles, shellfish, clams, black drum, redfish, spotted sea trout and the other abundant species of fish in the nutrient rich waters. During the summer months or hurricane season, when shellfish are not safe to eat, they would migrate inland. They loved dogs. When Cabeza de Vaca was shipwrecked on Galveston Island he and his men were cared for and fed by the Karankawa. As more settlers moved in, however, settler violence ensued. When attacked for trespassing, they would inevitable fight back, and were eventually labeled as vicious cannibals. The dominant culture must always demonize the subdominant culture in order to justify their violence and recruit others. The Karankawa were completely wiped out by 1858.
We only know about 100 of their words. No one ever studied them or learned their history. We have these words because a young girl named Alice Oliver hung out with them in the 1830’s. Her father owned land near the coast. He “let” the friendly Karankawa pass through and camp on “his” land, and allowed his daughter to spend much time with them. In the 1880’s she recounted as many of their words as she could.
When I read Texas history, I sometimes wonder how the Karankawa would tell the story if they were writing our textbooks. Likewise, when I read in today’s first lesson, “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…” I hear the voice of the winners. I wonder how this history would read if the Canaanites were telling it.
Long digression, I know, but this has been on my mind a lot recently.
The Canaanites were, like the Karankawas, nomadic tribes. The Canaanites were in the process of developing into a sophisticated urban and agricultural society. They developed an alphabet, probably the first alphabet. (Egyptians and Mesopotamians used glyphs.) The Canaanite alphabet became the basis for the Hebrew alphabet. Though each of the 22 Hebrew letters is also a glyph. Aleph ( א) is the head of a bull. Bet ( ב) looks like a little house. The letters were combined to represent a larger vocabulary of words and concepts.
A more sophisticated civilization required more sophisticated laws and rituals. First of all, when you begin living in this new, Promised Land, never forget your 40 years of wandering. Never forget what that felt like. Never forget how hard that was. Treat the wanderer with respect. This prime directive is built into the very fabric of Hebrew law. They even hearken back to Father Abraham, their proto-wanderer. The first of their harvest was to be taken to the priest. They were told to recount their history:
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. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.”
A wandering Aramean was my ancestor…
He went down to Egypt…
The Egyptians harshly afflicted us…
The Lord brought us out of Egypt…
So now I bring the first fruit of the earth…
If you have been the beneficiary of events, just and unjust, that have gone before you. Generosity may be the best way through. Perhaps the only way through.
What happens next is most interesting. What should be done with the tithe varies from text to text. In this text, here’s what happens:
You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. 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.
This is marvelous. What do you do with your 10% religious tithe? You sit down eat it with the Levites (the priests) and the resident aliens. What if we took this passage seriously today? It would mean setting aside 10%, the first fruits of your labor, and throwing the party to end all parties, a celebration of freedom, to remember that we were once immigrants. But don’t forget the most important part. Invite priests and immigrants. Invite the poor. Those who cannot pay you back.
When people say they want to get back to biblical values, well, here you go. Seriously, how would you do that today? Sounds like a free barbecue. How will you invite the immigrants? How will you find and welcome the wanderers? How will you make them feel safe, and welcome?
The cross is God’s way of siding with the the powerless, dispossessed, and forgotten. Who got crucified, but the powerless? Is not crucifixion a way of asserting dominance? Does Christ’s crucifixion not signify God’s identification with the powerless?
To wear a cross around our necks, or on our hearts, means to side with the powerless. It is to see them. To value them. It is to say, we will use our wealth, our first fruits to bless them. It is to say, we worship the God of the gallows, the God who loves the Karankawas, the Canaanites, the wanderers, the refugees. It is to resist the temptation of Satan’s offers of wealth, power and safety, as Jesus did.
By means of a diversion, we can avoid our own company twenty-four hours a day.
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert.
In his book The Power of Pause: Becoming More by Doing Less, Terry Hershey tells a story about the son of a rabbi who goes out into the woods every day after school. The worried rabbi asks his son about it. “No need to worry, dad. I go to the woods to talk with God.” Relieved, the rabbi replies, “As a rabbi’s son you should know that God is the same everywhere.” “Yes,” the son replies, “God is the same everywhere, but I am not.”
We need the wilderness, the place of quiet. Without it we are lost. Yes, we also need the place of productivity, but equally we need the place of reflection, or we are doomed to become ceaseless automatons lost in a flurry of unfocused activity.
After his baptism, Jesus began his ministry with 40 days of prayer and fasting. There is no other way to start. How else does one know where to begin? What must be done? We must first discern the voice of God, which means turning off the noise of the world, the noise in our heads. It means learning to listen, as Ann Weems puts it, for the rustle of angels’ wings.
Maybe we need to turn off the TV. Turn off the radio. Spend more time in silence.
The first challenge: Lenten repose is a particular challenge for church leaders on two counts. First, Lent is busier that the rest of the year for church leaders, not less so. There is less time for reflection, not more. Many of us add a midweek services with the added planning, recruiting and sermon prep. Many have big plans for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday, the biggest Sunday morning of the year. Some have baptismal preparation, new member sessions and First Communion classes.
Somehow in the midst of all of this, we must still find time. Where will the extra sermons come from if not from silence, time to listen to God? How can we model a balanced spiritually-centered life if we become children of hell driven by overzealous schedules? Having kids adds more responsibility. But it can help professional leaders in Lent, somewhat. Spring Break inevitably falls in the middle of Lent. The kids are off from school. Take advantage of this. In the midst of the busiest season of the church year, I learned to drop everything and just walk away. Go to the beach. Visit family. A trip to the zoo. A day in the woods. Or just a staycation. We just… have to. Or we will lose our center.
The second challenge is timeless, universal. In the wilderness we will most certainly, nearly always, encounter God. Seek and ye shall find. Knock and the door shall be opened. God is faithful. God shows up. But to be honest we have to admit this presents two problems. A. We’re not always sure we want to be confronted with God’s agenda. It’s so… inconvenient. B. We will most certainly, nearly always, also encounter Satan in the wilderness. Paul says,
So I find it to be a general rule, that when I’m wanting to do good, evil lies close at hand.
At every turn it seems we are tempted to set aside God’s agenda for our own. Many minds greater than mine have parsed the Temptation texts over the millennia. Jesus seems to be tempted three times, by three things that are not at all in themselves bad. He’s not tempted to commit murder or genocide.
Jesus is tempted with three things quite familiar to us as well: wealth, power and safety.
Wealth, Power and Safety
“If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread.” Nothing wrong with bread right? Jesus teaches his disciples to pray “give us this day our daily bread.” Bread is necessary for life. Luther says bread is,
Everything that nourishes our body and meets its needs, such as: Food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, yard, fields, cattle, money, possessions, a devout spouse, devout children, devout employees, devout and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, discipline, honor, good friends, faithful neighbors and other things like these.
So what’s wrong with Jesus wanting these things? Absolutely nothing, unless their support supplants his primary mission. Our lives can be derailed by good things. The temptation is to make our life about the constant pursuit of more. If you follow Jesus, there will come a time when you are tempted to forget your God-given mission by following the god of the belly. Jesus teaches:
Don’t worry about your life: what you will eat or drink, or what you will wear. Trust God, who clothes the fields and feeds the birds. Seek first God’s kingdom, and let everything else work itself out.
“All the kingdoms of this world I will give to you if you bow down and worship me.” Jesus has been called to a ministry that will eventually require him to lay down his life. It’s not at all difficult to see why he would want to walk away from this.
The devil tempts Jesus to trade his calling, his destiny, his integrity for POWER. Like bread, power is not bad either. Think of what you could do with political power. You could feed people. You could make a difference.
Jesus, however, accomplished his mission without holding political office. Here’s the problem: If we chase power, political or ecclesiastical, we will miss what God can do with our powerlessness. God says, “My power is made perfect in your weakness.” It was not in Jesus’ political or military power that made a difference. It was his love and serving and dying for us. Let those with ears hear.
“If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, after all, doesn’t the Bible say, God’s angels will take care of you?” Safety is not a bad thing. But if saving our skin becomes the highest good, we will never risk anything. There would be no cross. We may think ships are safest in the harbor, but that’s not what ships are built for. Life is dangerous. No one gets out alive. Don’t trade your mission for an illusion of immortality.
The wilderness is necessary. It is a place of reflection and healing, but it is also a place of temptation and testing. Expect to have your calling and mission questioned. Satan speaks constantly: “Why give your life to this silly religious business? The church is just a petulant club of judgmental moralists. Leave this behind. Go make some real bread. Live the high life. Eat and drink for tomorrow we die. Forget your cross. Are you some kind of masochist? Why sacrifice for others? Why be a servant? Why servitude at all? Go for the gusto. Don’t worry about the poor. Didn’t Jesus say the poor will always be with you? You can’t save the world. Go, live your life.”
Perhaps one of the reasons we fear the wilderness experience is because we know that we will encounter voices of doubt, fear, and temptation, as well as the voices of faith, hope and love. So Lent and the desert are not without risks. The wilderness is wild after all. The alternative is closing our hearts to the spiritual, being left to go on our own strength.
So, welcome to Lent. Empty yourself, in whatever ways you can. Change your routine. Listen. Fast. Pray. Give. Trust. Knowing that your fasting doesn’t make you a better person, right before God, of special merit, but rather it simply clears away the clutter so that we can see and hear God more clearly.
God cannot fill what is already full.