God’s Bounty — First Sunday of Lent, 2/21/10
Sermon offered on First Sunday of Lent, February 21, 2010
St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, Seattle, Washington
It is so wonderful to be here with you this morning, at this beautiful service and in this beautiful place, which already feels like home after being part of the Sabeel conference that was held here over the past several days. It’s a joy to be in your midst and I want to thank Rebecca for the honor of preaching from her pulpit. You know, as a Jew who grew up in the synagogue, preaching from a prescribed set of scripture reading is very familiar territory. Every Sabbath we read a section from the Five Books of Moses – it’s a one-year cycle, we divided it into 52 portions – and a selection from prophets that is textually or thematically linked to the Pentateuch reading. But when I discovered the lectionary I was so delighted – what an embarrassment of riches for the preacher! There is the Old Testament — with a psalm as a bonus, and Gospels, and Epistles. And for me, especially – this you need to understand — growing up I was not supposed to read the New Testament, and talk about Jesus was out of bounds. In fact when I was a kid walking into a church was out of the question – it was actually considered a dangerous place – such was the legacy of Europe. And so to bring the scriptures together into a whole is a miraculous coming together for me, a reestablishment of wholeness, a wholeness and coming together in faith, I submit, that is a matter of the utmost urgency to us today, the reason we are assembled here, and what I want to talk about this morning. And so I am grateful for the scriptural texts that we read today, texts that, as the lectionary unfailingly does, raises the questions and then, in directing us to answer them, brings the scriptures together for us.
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.” 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.
What we have before us here is a powerful narrative that centralizes the king and temple around devotion to God and the covenant with Abraham. The land is the centerpiece. What do we make of this commandment today? And how can we understand the heart of it? What’s essential here, what can be taken and carried forward to provide us with guidance and positive meaning today?
Well, we are in the lectionary, and we are open to its lesson. We turn to Paul.
“The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
What has happened in the temporal and spiritual space that exists between these proclamations of Moses and Paul? And what is this doing here in the first Sunday of lent? What does it have to do with repentance, about stripping away the illusions of immortality, the pride of self, of individual prideful strivings, and then contemplating what is left?
Deuteronomy is talking about celebrating God’s goodness through the bringing of physical gifts — it’s expressed in the physical manifestations: the land and its bounty. And that’s what the Israelites are commanded to give back, that’s the symbolism of the offering. In contrast, for Paul it’s belief as expressed in words. In Deuteronomy the image is hands (and not just those of man! God’s as well! His outstretched arm!). In Paul’s letter it is the word on your lips – and from there to your heart.
This first Sunday of Lent we are in the world of Paul’s letter to the Romans, his last spiritual testament, where he is trying to pull it all together — all the pain, doubling back, frustration, dashed hopes, heady successes. To get to the core. And what is that core?
Remember last week’s reading from Second Corinthians? Moses characterized as the ministry of death, Jesus as the ministry of the Spirit? None of that here. Here, in Romans, it is about community and connection: the root growing from shoot, do not boast over the Jews, here it is neither Jew nor Greek, but a voice that reaches to the ends of the earth. This is the message that Paul wants all to hear – of all humankind connected through the power of God’s love, God’s gift.
Look at the stunning words of Paul in these later chapters of his Letter to the Romans. He is struggling with two things: his own identity as a Jew in the face of the Jews’ rejection of Jesus and of his own ministry to bring the message of Jesus’ life to the world, in the face of his desire to preserve the sense of unity among mankind and God’s love for all, in the face of the division, the rejection, the splitting apart, which for Paul was shattering. His message is over and over again a universal one. A few verses later, writing of those who bring the good news, he says, “Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the earth” (10:18). And then in verse 20: I have been found by those who did not seek me. And back in 9:13-14, where he rejects even the concept that God could love Jacob and hate Esau. No! he proclaims: God’s nature is to have compassion on who I have compassion! No difference between Jew and Greek.
He is trying to bring the story together. Or, I would submit, he is trying to continue the story. And the story Paul tells is the story of where Judaism is supposed to go – from God’s choosing of one family to bring his message to humankind, to the necessary next phase: the gift of an ethical imperative that is universal. This is the logical progression of the Old Testament narrative. Look at our reading from Deuteronomy. Bear in mind that this is Moses’ final sermon to the people. Moses never got to enter the Promised Land – so here, looking over Jordan, he is telling his people the story of their future, he is telling them who they are and what their inheritance is about. And what is this story? That the land is their inheritance from God, a land that will sustain them, and, what is more, that will contain the house that God lives in. The land feeds the people, they take care of it, and they serve God by being stewards of the land, reaping its bounty and showing loyalty and gratitude to God at the Temple by bringing from that bounty. It’s a neat, ordered and sensible system. It confers security, connection, wholeness.
But the question we must ask this morning is, in what direction do we take this? If we are clear about the meaning of this inheritance, this possession, then we must see that it is not about possession. It is about devotion to God. It is about seeing that we are the stewards, not the owners, and that we all live in God’s house, and it’s a big house! We are in the realm of history now. History moves. Christianity took the land and the Temple and moved it into the realm of the spiritual and into the future of all humankind.
What are Jesus’ words after upon entering the Jerusalem that had become the client state of Rome? In Mark 13, we find Jesus and the disciples standing before the Temple. The disciples – remember, these are simple Galilean country folk, easily impressed — are awestruck, taken in by the scale and the majesty, and say so to their teacher. “Do you see these great buildings?” Jesus replies. “Not one stone will be left here upon another, all will be thrown down.” And in John 2: Jesus has stormed into the Temple, driven out the money changers and thrown over their tables. The disciples, shocked, cry out to him: “What are you doing!” And Jesus said, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” The disciples reply – again, of course, in their endearing cluelessness — “What? It took 46 years to build, and in three days it will be raised up again?” And the text notes, in a stunningly concise sidenote: “But he was speaking of the temple of his body.” So this is a fundamental transformation, a shift. Here expressed is the Christian concept of the body of Christ: His body is our body, one people, one humanity. From empire and domination to community the sharing of God’s bounty in justice and compassion. Talk about Good News!
Are we going in this direction? Are we seeing Temple, land, bounty in this way? This is what the original covenant points to, and the sermon that was Deuteronomy, Moses’ last will and testament, was about – not about the minutae of the sacrifices, but about the mutuality of the relationship. About God’s gift, God’s bounty. And this is where Jesus, as an inspired teacher and social revolutionary was taking it.
I submit that we are in danger of subverting, in fact reversing this crucial, revolutionary development in our spiritual growth. We are in history. History, in every period, confronts us with the imperative to struggle with this fundamental choice: domination and death, or community and life. It is a moment of truth that Christians faced not so long ago, and it is a moment of truth that you face now.
Sixty four years ago, Christians stood before the ovens of Auschwitz-Birkenau and said, “What we have done?” There ensued a project to rid Christian theology of what one prominent theologian has called “The Christian sin:” anti-Semitism. In the new theology that grew up after WW II, the Jews were seen no longer as the darkness but as the light. No longer displaced by the “new Israel” of Christianity, the Jews were now reinstated as God’s elect – the original covenant between God and Abraham was in force. Generations of theologians and clergy have been educated in this revised theology. But in the current historical context, there is a problem with this theology, in particular with respect to the issue of the land promise.
Recently I read an article by a prominent Catholic theologian, a man who has been a leader in interfaith work, who claimed that the Christian spiritualization of the land is wrong because it is a repudiation of the covenant with the Jews. By spiritualizing the land, he claims, Christians had in effect claimed it for their own, thus depriving the Jews of their birthright. This to me is an astonishing argument. The whole point of spiritualizing the land was to transform it from a key clause in the covenant between God and one particular people into a universal symbol. This is not to say that Christians at different times in history have claimed the land for “their” exclusive God. But that is the point – that was wrong. If it was wrong for Christians then it is wrong for Jews today. Granting the land to the Jewish people out of a sense of guilt over centuries of persecution of the Jews is not the way to atone for this sin.
This is not where God wants us to go. God’s will is that the land be a spiritual compass for us, not a place of conflict, not a place where one people or one family asserts its dominance or its superior claim as the way to God or as God’s special treasure.
God requires justice. The times cry out for the prophetic.
It is urgent. We don’t have much time.
Christians today talk about the need to honor the deep Jewish attachment to the Land of Israel. But as a Jew I must consider hard the distinction between loving a land and claiming it as my identity and as my birthright. When you claim a superior right to a territory shared by others, whether that claim is made on religious or political grounds, you head straight for disaster, which is exactly what the Jewish people are confronting in the State of Israel today – not only political, but cultural, psychological, and spiritual. We need to take a long hard look at our willingness to invoke the land clause of the covenant. The theology of the land, like that of election, like any other aspect of scripture, must be open to conversation with history.
And what does any of this have to do with Lent? As we enter the season of lent, we are reminded that we are, daily, and with every season, being tested. Can we be stewards of the earth? Can we treat all humankind with compassion? Can we see that we are all one?
This is the challenge facing us today on a global basis. And in particular it is being worked out in this narrow strip of land between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean, the Holy Land. It’s a journey that I, as a Jew, have had to take and am still on.
When I visited the West Bank and saw the dispossession and oppression being perpetrated in my name, purportedly to keep me safe, it broke my heart. It even made me question what it could mean for me to continue being a Jew. And, it seems ironic but I think it is just as it should be, it was an Anglican Palestinian Priest, Naim Ateek, who showed me that the path back to my Jewishness through his work on the Biblical roots of justice, that Jesus connected directly back to my Jewish Old Testament Prophets. I realized that my Jewishness required me to work for justice in Palestine – for all the peoples of the land.
When I returned from my trip, I discovered, to my great pain, that the synagogues were closed to my message. But I also discovered to my surprise and my joy, that the churches were open, and more than that, that Christians were hungry for my message.
Christians are now beginning to understand the meaning of their Jewish origins and the parallels between our own time and the situation of the Palestinians (i.e. Jews) of Jesus’ time. They understand the gospels as the record of a movement of social transformation and of nonviolent resistance to the evil of empire. I find myself saying to Christians who seek a devotional pilgrimage to the Holy Land: Yes! Go! Walk where Jesus walked! For, if you do go and indeed see what is to be seen, you will not only walk where he walked but you will see what he saw.
You will see land taken through the imposition of illegal laws and the tread of soldier’s boots.
You will see the attempt to destroy community and family through the taking of farms and the destruction of village life.
But you will also see nonviolent resistance, in the refusal of famers to abandon their land in the face of walls, fences and harassment. In the gathering of Israelis and Palestinians who have lost children to the conflict who declare We Refuse to be Enemies. In the gathering of Palestinian men and women who refuse to allow their family and community life to be destroyed. In the declarations of Palestinian religious leaders who, in the spirit of Jesus’ exhortation to love you enemies, reach out to their Israeli occupiers demanding justice.
And then, you will return to your Bibles and understand the origin of Christianity as a movement of nonviolent resistance to the forces that would remove women and men from the source of their strength and from knowledge of God’s love.
So the church is — or should be — right at home here. This is the social justice agenda that permeates the American church – it’s not a hard call! Except for the interfaith issue. That makes it difficult. I know. I know what charges you open yourselves to when you dare to criticize the State of Israel. And I can only imagine the impact that it has on you. But I say to you: do not let yourselves be held captive to our struggle. Do what your faith directs you to do, even if many of your Jewish brothers and sisters refuse, for the time being, to accompany you on that mission. Have compassion for us, honor the painful process that we must go through as we begin to look in the mirror and consider what we must do now to be OK with God as we confront the awful consequences of our nationalist project, but do not wait for us.
The churches in the U.S. are poised to fulfill their calling. You are here – wide, deep, vast, strong, organized — with the scriptures pointing you directly to the divine imperative to do justice.
And the times present an opportunity for that to happen. Because it the prophetic that must unite us around this new thing. That’s the faith community that needs to form, and Christian, Jew and Muslim is not so important, it’s whether you are for triumphalism or community, for exploiting the poor or freeing them from poverty, from despoiling the earth or honoring it.
We have entered Lent, the countdown to Easter, to that season where Jesus chose to come down from Galilee and enter Jerusalem. And when he came, he was accompanied by some shouting.
As Jesus was approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would shout out.”
I find how Jesus expresses himself at that moment so powerful – whether praise or protest, you cannot suppress the cry of strong feeling. And what was the praise about, after all? It was the spontaneous response of an oppressed, occupied people – a cry of love, adoration, and sheer joy for the miracle of Jesus’ ministry – his power to heal, to inspire, to lead. It’s a wonderful moment, and so captures Jesus in his idiom, his unstoppable response to the stifling, spirit-killing, life-denying voice of established authority. “You can’t stop this!” he is saying. “Nature itself, even these seeming inert stones, resonate with the joy and life force emanating from these people.”
Let us also do some shouting. Let us celebrate and bless God’s bounty, as we, entering this season of lent, consider the path we will follow, as individuals and as communities. A path that may contain pain, loss, and cost, but that leads to fulfilling his will: do justice, love mercy, walk humbly. May we offer that gift of strength and community one another, here, in this place, a this time. May God bless all of you in this season.