Scripture - Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Deuteronomy 26:1-11 (The Message)
26 1-5 Once you enter the land that God, your God, is giving you as an inheritance and take it over and settle down, you are to take some of all the firstfruits of what you grow in the land that God, your God, is giving you, put them in a basket and go to the place God, your God, sets apart for you to worship him. At that time, go to the priest who is there and say, “I announce to God, your God, today that I have entered the land that God promised our ancestors that he’d give to us.” The priest will take the basket from you and place it on the Altar of God, your God. And there in the Presence of God, your God, you will recite:
A wandering Aramean was my father,
he went down to Egypt and sojourned there,
he and just a handful of his brothers at first, but soon
they became a great nation, mighty and many.
The Egyptians abused and battered us,
in a cruel and savage slavery.
We cried out to God, the God-of-Our-Fathers:
He listened to our voice, he saw
our destitution, our trouble, our cruel plight.
And God took us out of Egypt
with his strong hand and long arm, terrible and great,
with signs and miracle-wonders.
And he brought us to this place,
gave us this land flowing with milk and honey.
So here I am. I’ve brought the firstfruits
of what I’ve grown on this ground you gave me, O God.
10-11 Then place it in the Presence of God, your God. Bow low in the Presence of God, your God. And rejoice! Celebrate all the good things that God, your God, has given you and your family; you and the Levite and the foreigner who lives with you.
Cultivating Faithfulness….Letting Go of Self-Reliance
It seems a little counterintuitive to share a passage about the end of desert, wilderness wanderings when we’re right at the beginning of the season of Lent - the season so often compared to going out into the wilderness to resist temptation, to stretch and test and try our spiritual muscles, to battle demons - or to sit and learn in those places of discomfort, as Ben preached about last week. Lent so often carries with it this image of depriving ourselves - of stubbornly resisting temptation - and here in Deuteronomy we’re presented with a full table, an abundant harvest, a feast that brings together friend and stranger and sojourner alike.
The Israelites were about to enter into the Promised Land. They had been wandering for 40 years, living in tents, and here they find themselves overlooking the Jordan river with everything they had been working for, sacrificed for, wandering for just within reach. They had made it - and their whole world was about to change. They were about to go from being a nomadic people to cultivators of the land, a fundamental shift in how they understood themselves as a people.
Even as they enter this new phase of their history, God does not want them to forget their past. God instructs them to remember their heritage, remember the mighty acts of liberation God performed on their behalf, and to remember that it was God who brought them into this Promised Land. Above all, they are to remember God’s care and provision for them throughout their history even to the present day - and to cultivate faithfulness in response to the new responsibility of living as God’s people in a settled land. They would need reminders of God’s action and deliverance as again and again the Israelites wandered away to be like the surrounding nations, worshipping other gods, exploiting the poor, widow, and orphan - these words of bringing firstfruits would serve as a call to faithful and generous living in response to the God who saved them to a new life.
This also is a passage that reminds the Israelites - and us - that we can’t go on this journey alone - that it is God who moves before us, behind us, among us - God who opens the opportunities for us to enter and experience life. Liberation is not something that happens through our own merit, but by God’s strength. Growth is not something we eke out for ourselves, but comes through God’s grace. Our identity rests first and foremost as beloved children of God - apart from anything we try on our own merits. We rely not on our own strength or savvy or grit to make it through life - but on God’s care and provision for us. God invites us to let go of self-reliance...and cultivate faithfulness instead - a faithfulness that is rooted in our true selves as children of the Creator.
There’s a beautiful quote from Nadia Bolz-Weber in her book Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and a Saint. She writes:
“Identity. It’s always God’s first move. Before we do anything wrong and before we do anything right, God has named and claimed us as God’s own. But almost immediately, other things try to tell us who we are and to whom we belong: capitalism, the weight-loss industrial complex, our parents, kids at school - they all have a go at telling us who we are. But only God can do that. Everything else is temptation. Maybe demons are defined as anything other than God that tries to tell us who we are.”
What if, this Lent, instead of denying ourselves the extra sweets or scaling back the social media - not that those aren’t good things in and of themselves - what if we let go of all the places where we try to define ourselves and go our own way - letting go of the voices that try to tell us who we are, the voices of “I’m not good enough”, “I don’t belong” “I’m not smart enough” “I don’t need help” or “You’re a failure” “You need better things to be worthy” - what if we let go of the notion that we can do life on our own, that we our value is determined by what we produce or by what we own or by the number of people in our social circle - what if we let go of that and invited God to cultivate faithful, generous lives - responding to the God who saves us again and again from our sins, who reminds us again and again that we are beloved, who calls us children?
Faithfulness takes seriously the claim that we belong to God - that is the heart of our response. We remember God’s action in our lives in the past, notice God’s movement in the present, and trust in God’s leadings for the future. Our actions, our decisions, our attitudes flow from this center. Faithfulness isn’t blind trust or performing spiritual acts to make ourselves look good or claiming to be holier than we are. Faithfulness doesn’t mean we aren’t scared or worried or question things. Faithfulness means that we look for God first and align our hearts and our lives around God’s love...God’s purposes...and God’s kingdom made real among us.
We are starting out Lent with this image of bounty - of firstfruits cultivated in a new land and laid as an offering before the one who created us, who came down as one of us in Jesus Christ, and who will never leave us abandoned. Let us think of this season as one of spiritual gardening. “We invite God to unearth in us what lies fallow, what needs to be tended, and what needs to die for new life to emerge.” We let go so that God can cultivate within us.
I want to close with this poem written by Rev. Sarah Are from A Sanctified Art: I want you to imagine God reading this letter to you - it’s entitled “A letter to someone I love.”
Dear loved one--
I hope you let go.
I hope you let go of holding yourself to impossible standards.
Lower the bar. Give yourself grace.
God delights in who you are.
And while you’re at it, I hope you let go of ignoring your beauty.
The mirror is tired of your harsh words, for you are made of star stuff and music.
You are the only you there is, and you. are. simply. stunning.
And I hope you’ll consider letting go of certainty.
For the sun will always rise and set, and you will always be loved.
What more do we really need to know than that?
So let go of your fear.
Let go of perfection.
Let go of busyness as a sign of your self worth,
And the notion that creativity is a luxury.
Be wild and free.
Plant roots like a redwood,
And a spine like a sunflower;
For the days are short, and you are beautiful.
I love nothing more than to see you happy.
So don’t be afraid to let go.
The only thing you cannot lose is God’s evergreen love.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and five year old son and almost 2 year old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.