March 10, 2019
First Sunday of Lent, Pastor Javen Swanson
Today’s scripture readings: Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Luke 4:1-13
As we gather today in the midst of yet another big Minnesota snowstorm, I’m remembering that last Sunday I was at a dance party on the beach. For eight years now, Oby and I have taken an annual vacation to Miami Beach at the end of February to attend a festival organized by the National LGBTQ Task Force, the organization I worked for just before being called here to Gloria Dei. The proceeds from the festival benefit the work of the Task Force and several other organizations serving the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer community in south Florida. But for most of the people who attend, the festival is just an excuse to enjoy a few days of music, dancing, and social events in a part of the world where ice dams and snow emergencies are easily forgotten.
While I was there, I began reading a biography of Harvey Milk, the civil rights activist who became one of the first openly gay elected officials in the United States when he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. It was purely a coincidence that this was one of the books I brought along; it just happened to be at the top of a tall stack of books I’ve been meaning to read. As I was on this trip reading about Harvey Milk and then going to these dance parties I started asking myself, “I wonder how many of the people here really know the story of Harvey Milk.” After all, probably half the people there were born after Harvey Milk was assassinated. Some of them, myself included, are even too young to remember the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s. I wondered, how many of the people enjoying this festival know our movement’s history? How many people here think that going to fabulous dance parties is all it really means to be part of this community? What would happen to the LGBTQ community if it forgot its history, and the stories of Stonewall and Harvey Milk and AIDS were lost forever?
The Israelites were also enjoying a festival in today’s first reading from Deuteronomy. The passage describes the Jewish custom for giving thanks at the beginning of the harvest season. As the law required, the Israelites took the first of the fruits of the ground and brought them to the priest to offer them up to God in a rite of thanksgiving. And after handing the basket of olives, grain, grapes and other produce over to the priest, the people would recite the story of 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.” The story tells how their ancestor Jacob traveled to Egypt, how his descendants grew in number, and how the Egyptians persecuted them. In their struggle, the Lord heard their cries of distress and delivered them from slavery with miracles and powerful signs, bringing them through the wilderness to “a land flowing with milk and honey.” As the Israelites celebrate the beginning of the harvest with the abundance of crops grown in the land that has now become their own, they take a moment to remember where they’ve come from. Lest they become complacent or begin to feel entitled, they remind themselves that life hasn’t always been so good, that the story of their people began with a migrant who lived as an alien in someone else’s land, whose descendants endured generations of slavery, and that it was only by God’s grace that they survived all of that and now live in a land that produces an abundant harvest.
Tradition tells us that Moses wrote the book of Deuteronomy as he was sitting beside the River Jordan, as the Israelites prepared to enter into the land that God had promised them. But most scholars believe that the book was actually written much later, centuries after the Hebrew people had inhabited the land of Canaan. Deuteronomy was most likely written after Israel conquered the land, after the people turned against one another and engaged in a civil war, after enemy empires had invaded their promised land and conquered their capital. If that is true, then Deuteronomy was written in a period of longing, looking back to the good old days when the future seemed bright. Within this context, the story of “a wandering Aramean” reminds people in exile that God has been with them in the past, and that God will continue to be with them.
What would have become of the Jewish community if this history had been forgotten? The stories of a community’s history provide a sense of identity. It’s only by reflecting on our past that we can really understand and appreciate who we are today and see clearly which direction we should go in the future.
Hundreds of years after Deuteronomy was written, when Jesus is tempted by the devil in the wilderness, it’s clear that Jesus knows his people’s stories. He knows who he is and who he is supposed to be because he knows his people’s history.
In his reflections on today’s Gospel reading Pastor David Lose of Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis suggests that “each of the temptations seeks to erode and undercut Jesus’ confidence in [his] relationship with God and therefore undermine Jesus’ identity.” The devil tries “to erode Jesus’ confidence that he is enough, that he is secure, that he is worthy of God’s love. And in the face of these temptations,” Jesus quotes scripture—the sacred story of his people—in order to claim his place in that story and insist upon his identity as a child of God. The devil tempts Jesus with bread, with power, and with safety. Each time, Jesus replies, “I know who I am, and I know my people’s history. I know that God has provided for us even when things looked impossibly bleak, and I know God will provide for me now. I don’t need what you have to offer because I trust that the God who saved my people before will save me now.”
Every couple months we have a Baptism Orientation Workshop and we ask parents who are preparing for a baptism to attend. Actually, we just had one of these workshops yesterday morning. We always tell parents that it will be important to remind their children continually of the promises God made to them in baptism—that in baptism God claims them as a beloved child and promises that nothing, not even death, could separate them from God’s love. We tell parents it will be important to remind their children of those baptismal promises because, as they grow up, they will be tempted to believe all sorts lies about themselves: that they’re not good enough, not smart enough, not pretty enough, not talented enough, not perfect enough. So we ask parents at baptism: Do you promise to live with them among God’s faithful people—to bring them to worship, where they will be immersed in a community of people who remind one another of God’s unending love for them? Do you promise to place in their hands the holy scriptures, where they will hear for themselves the good news of God’s mercy and forgiveness? Do you promise to bring them to the holy supper, where they will be fed the bread of life and strengthened and nourished for their daily living in the world? We ask parents to promise that they will keep telling their children the history of our people and take part in the spiritual practices that help us remember who we are and prepare us resist the lies we are tempted to believe.
“Remembering” will be one of our themes during this season of Lent. This coming Friday at 7:30pm, Pastor Bradley will preach at the Shabbat service at Mount Zion Temple, when the readings call upon the community to remember the Holocaust. And next Sunday, Rabbi Spilker will preach here on the story of Abraham and Sarah and God’s promise to make of them a great nation, remembering how they faithfully answered God’s call and trusted God’s promise to them.
Lent in the Christian tradition is often a season of sacrifice and self-denial, and certainly those can be meaningful practices during these 40 days. But maybe this Lent could also be a season for remembering—for rooting ourselves more deeply in the stories of God’s people that tell us who we are and give us strength to withstand the devil’s temptations; stories that teach us that God’s love has sustained us in the past, continues to hold us today, and will be ours forever.
David J. Lose, “Lent 1C: Identity Theft”, on …In the Meantime, 2019, http://www.davidlose.net/2019/03/lent-1-c-identity-theft/.
Archie Smith, Jr., “Deuteronomy 26:1-11: Pastoral Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Vol. 2, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009).