“A Journey of Hope”
a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
based on the theme: “Lent – Journey of Hope, Faith, and Love”
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
March 10, 2019
1When 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,
2you 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.
3You 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.”
4When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God,
5you shall make this response before the Lord your God: “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.
6When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us,
7we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.
8The 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;
9and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.
10So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God.
11Then 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.
Our Scripture lesson is part of Moses’ last words to the people of Israel. God has liberated them from slavery in Egypt. God has brought them into the land that had once been theirs, but which they had lost generations ago. This passage defines their response to what God has done for them. Moses reminds them that in response they should bring the “first fruits” – meaning the best, not the leftovers – of all the crops to the priests and remember the story of their liberation by God. In other words they are to remember who has saved them. Moses also commands that they should “celebrate” along with the priests and the “aliens who reside among” them.
This may seem a strange reading for the beginning of Lent. It sounds more like a passage to read during our fall stewardship season. We think of Lent as a time to repent and to prepare for Easter and it is. But part of the real meaning of repent is to turn from our self-centered ways and our selfish concerns and remember who our Creator is, and who has saved us. To truly repent, to turn to a new way of acting and living means to follow Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ called us to love our neighbor as ourselves, to take up our cross and follow him, to seek to serve rather than be served. All these things are what we might call “counter-cultural.” They go against the values and priorities of our consumer-driven, satisfy ourselves and ignore the needs of others, cultural values. Our culture sees sacrifice and being other-oriented as something to grieve and fear rather than something to seek out as a blessing from God.
Jesus often talked about how those who discover the Kingdom of God celebrate. He compared it to a widow who had lost her shiny coin being so giddy when she finds it she spends it to throw a celebration with family and friends. He speaks of it like having a good-for-nothing son return from a life of partying and selfish celebrations and throwing a party first thing to celebrate his return. Perhaps the most odd thing about this passage is that it invites us to celebrate that all that we have is a gift from God, not something we earned or deserve or even are worthy of because of our own abilities and brilliance. It seems the take-away for us from this is that this is that turning to a different way, what the Christian tradition calls repentance is not so much something to grieve and to fear, but something to celebrate and rejoice.
The Christian life is often depicted as joyless, somber, and all about suffering. The fact is that most of the time Jesus talk about eating and drinking and partying when others are criticizing for doing so. He is turning water into wine, allowing his disciples to eat when others fast, urging us to go out and compel the poor, the disabled, and the illegal immigrant to come to our dinner party that our good and proper friends and coworkers refused to show up for. All this reminds us that the Christian life is about a journey of hope, and a journey of love. This faith journey gives us signs at unexpected times and challenges us to respond to the actions of others that cause us and others to hurt, or suffer, or experience some kind of injustice and know that we can respond with faith, hope, and love. The repentance that God calls us to is more than feeling bad spiritually. It is turning from ways that do not bring faith, hope, and love to others in our actions – in our governments, in our schools, and in our communities not just in our hearts.
Bil’s story reminds us that while a small and vocal part of our culture thinks that they deserve the privileges that come from a system that causes injustices for others, we can choose to give others faith, hope, and love instead. In the face of those who cry out because the status quo is changing, we celebrate that by repenting, by changing the status quo, others can experience the same rights we have. I believe in a God who not only believes “all men are created equal” but so are all women and children and therefore I cannot use my religious beliefs or anything else to deny others basic human rights. I also do not have to fear that when others are treated justly I will somehow suffer some sort of loss.
Bil’s story teaches me that people of faith can still find that there are communities of faith that seek to live out their spirituality by working to free others as God worked to free the Israelites from slavery. It teaches me that spirituality isn’t just about praying and believing, but it is about acting to change things that are wrong in God’s eyes. It gives me hope that we can celebrate all that God has done for us and include others, even the one who is a stranger. Many people have experienced the painful parts of Bil’s faith journey and have lost hope, have lost faith in the church and in God. But for me, Bil’s story reminds me that Jesus didn’t just pray for the Kingdom of God to come. He worked and sacrificed and stood up to the religious and political powers who caused others to suffer and even more called for their crucifixion and carried out their executions. Jesus faced all this to liberate all people the way God had liberated the Hebrew people held in captivity in Egypt for so long.
So let us celebrate this Lenten journey. Let us rejoice that God has set us free. Let us repent from ways that enslave others and ourselves. Let us celebrate that we have been invited to a journey of faith, hope, and love. Yes, there is a cross to bear. Yes, there are sacrifices to be made. But Christ has shown us that the way of repentance, sacrifice, and the cross lead to the celebration of new life, of resurrection, of faith, hope, and love for all humankind. Let us celebrate the God who has given us this faith, this hope, and this love. AMEN.