Sermon ~ November 20, 2016 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson
These days it is hard to imagine how we got along without computers and cell phones. A generation has now entered adulthood that never knew a world without these tools of technology. We live in a society where the wisdom of the past is easily outplayed by the latest bid for our loyalty. Now, there is nothing wrong or intrinsically evil in technology. Cellphones, iPads, Bluetooth this and that are merely tools. We just have to make sure we are controlling the tools and do not become ensnared slaves of some cyber – overlord.
In the days of Deuteronomy they worried about idols of gold now we have to be wary of idols made out of quartzite and a few rare earth metals.
I honestly think there are those who would quicker forget and leave their kid behind than walk out without their cellphone! A couple of times lately I walked out leaving my cellphone behind. All was good until I realized I had left it behind then I felt my anxiety level rise! I thought, “How ridiculous! Who is controlling who?” Don’t forget.
Deuteronomy 26 offers some corrective to our modern quandary with fascination and fixation with technology or anything else that might lure us away from where our focus should be. It tells of the ancient practice of giving the first fruit of the harvest and then the important recitation of the Hebrews’ story of deliverance. These are inseparable in the passage suggesting that the meaning of one (thanksgiving) frames the meaning of the other (the remembering of God’s acts of liberation).
What happens to a people’s sense of self and history when their priorities are organized around material possessions and shifting market values? Consider this from recent events: On the night of the election stock futures plummeted. People worried about the unknown. I’ll be honest, when I heard this I wondered about what this might do to the value of my pension!
Then the following day after the NYSE opened, stocks rebounded and actually gained. Many, if we’re honest, breathed a bit easier. Maybe we even breathed a prayer of thanks?! Again a part of me thought, “How ridiculous! In what do I trust?” Don’t forget.
Have we lost our identity as God’s people to the point that we no longer know why we give thanks or to whom to give it? This passage of scripture, recounting an ancient practice, is crucially relevant to an understanding of ourselves as human beings who are the subjects of God’s continual care and creative love. This story may counter the illusion that we can deliver or save ourselves through our fixation with modern technologies and unwarranted trust in Wall Street idols.
Deuteronomy reminds us that when a people forget their past, they can also lose their present and future. We aren’t to live in the past but we allow it to inform our present and future. This means that all those creeds and biblical stories are part of the church’s collective memory. Celebration and recitation are ways we fashion our identity by reenacting the events that mark the Hebrew/Christian salvation story. As in when we remember “That it was on the night of his betrayal, Jesus was at table with his disciples and he took bread . . .”
The season of Thanksgiving is a good time of year to reflect, meditate and act upon the lessons of this passage in Deuteronomy 26. And not just a quick three-day break before we enter the hectic shopping and party season formerly known as Advent.
So what does Deuteronomy say to us this Thanksgiving? One, take the time to experience and express gratitude. Have you ever known people who rarely say “Thank you,” or express a sense of gratitude for the things done for or given to them? Some live as if they are entitled to the good will of others. And from my experience it is often those who have more expect or feel entitled to more.
Thanksgiving gives us the opportunity to reverse such a way of being in the world. It is a time to take stock of our life and that of the community, to remember the unmerited good that has come our way and to repent of the ways we have squandered it. Seems to me that repentance ought to go along with our offerings of thanksgiving as we open our lives to examination; as we examine our relationship with God we will become more and more aware of those things that come our way completely unearned and undeserved: gifts of grace.
The season of Thanksgiving is also a time to remember our ancestors. In our reading for this morning the ancestors are the particular individuals who stood out as exemplary figures for the Hebrew people. Verse 5: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor . . .” This is speaking of Jacob who later became Israel, but it also reaches back to Abraham.
Thanksgiving offers us opportunities to recall those who have gone on before us. These may be treasured friends, beloved relatives, or others who have left their imprints on our lives, the life of our families, and our community. Our gratitude extends to them because through the legacy of their faith they still speak and encourage us to work for a better world.
For many in our country their ancestors came from very difficult circumstances of oppression, hunger, and terror. Many of our fellow country men and women are only a generation removed from those circumstances and may still be going on for some of their family. We are challenged to remember global oppressions, famines and wars and the ancestors who struggled against them and for a better life for their families. The work of our ancestors is furthered through our faithful efforts in our time.
This is also a time to remember the past in general. Not to dwell in the past or get stuck there but the past represents the events that shaped us directly and indirectly, in recognized and unrecognized ways. We must strive to remember the past so that we can learn from the lessons of history and move forward with a greater sense of wisdom and appreciation of past struggles. And by this I do not mean telling and retelling our grandchildren how difficult life was for us growing up. You know the whole “Walk to school, uphill both ways in the snow, year-round!” But tell the stories, honestly if possible, warts and all. (Uncle Wilkie, Trespasser Wilson)
I think about the past remembered by the Israelites in this passage: they were called to remember the time when they were wandering in the wilderness and living in tents without a land of their own. You know, we live in a land of great wealth and opportunity and all too often we take our amazing physical and financial abundance for granted. We have a promised land, and too often we take this as a sign of special blessing and privilege from God, rather than as a sign of special responsibility. Ours is a rich inheritance, but daily in our forgetfulness we rob future generations of their inheritance.
Despite the fact that we live in one of the wealthiest and most powerful nations in the world, there has never been a time in history when more people have been consumed with a search for meaning. Anxiety and fear abound – our souls are unsettled- and while spiritual fixes proliferate, the signs of our rudderlessness grow. We seem to have forgotten something. Do we need to go back to our beginning? “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor. . .
Too often it seems to me that we grabbed for the first fruits of everything and forgotten who is the “first cause or mover” and have not remembered and given thanks. We tend to worship the “American dream” rather than the One who said “This is my body . . .
Deuteronomy 26 reminds us that the “thanks” given at Thanksgiving ought to be about more than just the delicious bounty of food on our feast tables. But also a powerful gratitude for our ancestors and our past remembering these with an understanding and appreciation that informs our present actions and moves us forward bringing with us, and furthering, the best ideals of the past.
With this may we acquire a deep sense of repentance when we find we have strayed from the ways of the One who set this in motion in the first place.
“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.”