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Sermon: The Lord Your God

November 21, 2010

Deuteronomy 26:1-11

If you grew up in the United States, it is very likely that when the month of November rolled around, you sat in school tracing the shape of your hand on construction paper to use as the body of a turkey.  You made black Pilgrim hats with the metal buckle, and white Pilgrim head coverings, and you drew pictures of the first Thanksgiving, with Native Americans and Pilgrims eating together at an impossibly long table piled high with food.

You heard the story of a people who came to a new land on a ship, a people who had such a difficult time in this new place that many of them died, and perhaps all of them would have died were it not for some Native Americans who gave them some food and taught them how to live in this strange, new place.

I don’t know how much of that story is really true, but it feels like it should be true.  It’s a story about compassion and sharing and friendship, and the world certainly needs a lot more stories like that.

Thanksgiving, like every holiday, is about remembering.  Usually, we are “remembering” events that happened so long ago none of us were around at the time–the birth of Jesus, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, that first meal shared by the pilgrims and Native Americans.  Those long past events we choose to remember define who we want to be as a people.

Our scripture lesson today is also about remembrance, though the story in Deuteronomy is much more ancient than our Thanksgiving story.  These two stories also share some remarkable similarities that we’ll discuss in a few moments.

The story Deuteronomy is scripture that comes from the wilderness.  The book itself contains a large amount of legal instructions to the people–how to get along with each other, how to live in a new land, how to honor God.  But the context is the wilderness.  As Moses speaks to the people, they have not yet entered the Promised Land.  God has rescued them from slavery in Egypt, and for nearly a generation, the people have been wandering in the desert, sustained only by the food and water God provides.

But soon, soon they will cross over into a new land, a land flowing with milk and honey.  It will be a place where they can put down roots and finally mature into the full people of God.

And so Moses said to the people, “When you go in to the land, to your new inheritance, you will plant crops.  When the very first harvest comes in your new land, get a basket and put some of the first crops into that basket.

“God will designate a special place, and you will go to the priest there.  Place the basket before the priest.  When he puts your offering on the altar of the Lord your God, say these words:

“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor”–that refers to Jacob, the father of the twelve tribes of Israel, but it also refers to the fact that from the time of Abraham and Sarah, all of the Hebrew people had been wandering, waiting for God to show them their true home–“a wandering Aramean was my ancestor, and he went to Egypt to live in a strange land during the famine.  While in Egypt, the family of Jacob became very large, a great nation, but the Egyptians treated us harshly and made us slaves.

“We cried out to the Lord our God, and God heard our oppression.  With signs and mighty wonders, God rescued us from Egypt and brought us to this place, a land flowing with milk and honey.  So now, I bring the first fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.

“Then, after you do that, you shall gather with the Levites–the priestly people who have no land to call their own–gather with the Levites and the foreigners who reside among you, and celebrate with all the bounty the Lord your God has given you.”

Like the Hebrew people, the Pilgrims were wanderers.  They were escaping persecution and searching for a new land.  When they arrived in what was to them a new world, they interpreted it as the hand of God guiding them to safe harbor and a new start.  And, both the Hebrews and Pilgrims–we should note–arrived in a new land that already had other people living in it.

What both the Hebrews and the first Pilgrims recognized–and it is something that we often forget–is that they were not personally responsible for the good fortune they had found.  It was God who made them a people; it was God who saved them; it was God who guided their journey; and God who provided the bounty of the land.  Neither the Hebrews nor the Pilgrims nor we ourselves are responsible for the good gifts of life or land.

That’s what the remembrance of the Deuteronomy text is about.  These twelve verses use the phrase “the Lord your God” fourteen times.  The Lord your God gave you the land; the Lord your God gave you the bounty of the land; the Lord your God rescued you from Egypt.  It’s about remembering, remembering what God has done for the people.

Because it is a gift that comes from the open hand of the Lord, and is not our own doing, the celebration is to be shared.  The people are to share with the Levites, that tribe of Israel who has not been given a portion of land because the Levites are responsible for the upkeep of the Lord’s house.  It is also to be shared with the foreigners who are living in the land with the people.  The Hebrews were once wanderers themselves, once lived in a foreign land, and so they should be kind and generous to those aliens who live among them now.

That, to me, is the most beautiful part of this celebration of Thanksgiving.  It is something to be shared.  It is not like our ordinary family dinners which are often as not eaten in front of the television, or the sacred meal of the Passover, where Moses told every family was to gather its own under their own roof.  This is a meal to be shared in recognition that the food comes not by our own merit, but through the gift of God.

We have all come here from other lands.  We have all been guided by God and brought to this place flowing with milk and honey, overflowing with food and clean water and luxury goods.  We are all the descendants of sojourners.  That’s part of the human condition.  And all sojourners are dependent upon the compassion and hospitality of strangers.  That’s why I can think of no better way to give thanks to God than to invite someone to your table, to invite someone who is not a part of your inner circle of family and friends.  We are meant to celebrate with others for the bounty God has given us.

Of course, this year with our Thanksgiving offering, you are sharing with other people who are also sojourners in this world, looking for God to provide a way forward, a path to a better future.  Through the Folds of Honor Foundation, you are helping children who have lost a father, women and men who have lost a spouse, to have a real opportunity for an education so they can live full, productive lives.  Through Rainbow Services, you are helping women with children, who never had an education or job skills, to escape the cycle of violence and begin new lives.  And you are helping to prevent that cycle of violence from taking root in the first place.  These are sojourners on the journey of life with us, and you are giving thanks to God for your good fortune by offering them a helping hand.

Thanksgiving begins, however, with remembering.  We remember there is a God, and we’re not it.  It’s about remembering that everything we have comes as a gift.  It’s about remembering the stories that remind us who we are at our best.  We are people who share generously.  We have deep compassion for others.  We help one another.  We celebrate with one another.

I encourage you to do a lot of remembering this Thanksgiving.  Remember the God who made you who you are and gave you the good things of this earth.  Remember the ancestors who came before you and paved the way.  Remember all those who offered you help and compassion as just the right moment.  Give thanks to God, and pray that God will make you a person worthy of those holy memories.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

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