First Sunday in Lent Deuteronomy 26:1-11

The book of Deuteronomy was written many hundreds of years after the Israelites had reached the Promised Land, but it is structured as Moses’ deathbed address, his last words to the stubborn, chosen people of God. Remember, he says. Remember the last forty years. Remember who you are. Remember all that God has done for you. And respond in gratitude and thanksgiving – first before the altar and then by putting hands and feet to that gratitude.

In today’s portion, the Israelites are encamped to the East, poised to enter the Promised Land. And in a few poignant sentences, Moses takes us back to the beginning of their epic journey and reminds them that God has been with them every step of the way, that in fact God has laid out their path and mapped their journey. When you enter this land, the first thing you are to do is give thanks to God. And when you do that, when you approach the altar, remember who you are. Remember where you have been. And the sheltering care that God has offered to you, extend it now to others. God pours out the gifts of land and life and harvest, all expressions of God’s love, so that we in turn can offer our gifts to others.       Say this: A wandering Aramean was my father.

          Remember that you were once homeless, rootless, stateless.

Say this: He went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien.

Remember when you were othered, voiceless, marginalized, and without power and influence.

And then say this: We cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors.

          Say this: The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.

          Remember. Remember whose you are. Remember that even when you thought you would starve, even when you bowed down to a golden calf, even when you saw no end in sight and doubted that there even was a Promised Land, God was walking with you every step of the way, and God was making your path. In the knowledge that God has poured out God’s gifts upon you, go and do likewise.

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.

At the beginning of Lent, on Ash Wednesday, we hear the words of the prophet Joel, who calls us to mourning and fasting as ways to gain access to God’s forgiveness and favor. The alternative Old Testament reading for that day, Isaiah 58, warns us that mourning and fasting can become places in which we hide from our responsibilities for justice and righteousness. That is, our thanks to God is an empty gesture if we do not follow our offerings at the altar with acts of true justice outside the sanctuary.

We receive the gift of Jesus at Christmas, we celebrate the coming of that light, and then we turn to the gift of our lives and acknowledge our mortality, also a gift from the good God. When we receive the huge gifts God offers us, we then are bid to offer a gift to God in return. But the offering of the gift at the altar is not the end of the story. To do that, as Joel urges us, is indeed right and salutary. And as Isaiah reminds us, that’s only half of our offering.

Bring your gift to the altar: When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God.

Remember your journey. Remember God’s abiding presence. He lived there as an alien. The Egyptians afflicted us. The Lord brought us out of Egypt.

Leave your gift at the altar. 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 your house.

Giving thanks to God for God’s gifts to us is incomplete unless it includes care for those who cannot easily fend for themselves. First, there are the Levites, landless holy ones, who rely on the gifts of Israelites for their very survival. And second, there are the “aliens”—the strangers, the immigrants, who have come to Israel for safety, for sustenance, possibly driven there by war or famine.

On this Lenten journey: yes, we who have plenty of food, we fast. Yes, we who have easy access to soap and hot water, we dirty ourselves with ashes. And we give life to those gestures when we, whose hands and hearts and homes are so filled with God’s bounty, turn to those whose hands are empty, whose hearts are broken, and whose homes are destroyed, and call them to the table.

The first word we say to the displaced, the vulnerable, the wounded among us is not, “Go back where you came from,” or, “Get a job.” Our first word, indeed, our only word, must be, “Come to the table of mercy, prepared with the wine and the bread. All who are hungry and thirsty, come, and your souls will be fed. Come at the Lord’s invitation, receive from his nail-scarred hand, eat of the bread of salvation, drink of the blood of the Lamb.”[1] Only then will we be on the Lenten journey to which God has called us.

[1] “Come to the Table.” ELW #481. © 1991 Integrity’s Hosanna! Music.