A Homily for the First Sunday in Lent
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who walks with us through the wilderness and gives us the strength to endure. Amen.
Who are you? Where do you come from? Or, as they might say on the Gulf coast, “Who’s ya mama ‘n’ ‘em?”
We’ve seen an explosion of folks trying to answer these questions in recent years. As our society becomes more mobile and transient, people have left their old homesteads behind and, with them, a large part of their identities. Gone are the close-knit extended families gathered together at every major holiday, fading are the traditional recipes handed down from grandparent to parent to child, few are the churches where four generations still sit together in the same pew, and many “been in my family for generations” farms and houses have long since been sold.
Instead, we see families uprooted and replanted in the suburbs and revitalized, gentrified inner city apartment buildings.
As so many traditional identity markers fade, the internet has stepped in to make genealogical research easier to find out who you are. Sites like Ancestry.com allow you to reconstruct your family tree, and commercial genetic testing services offer to unpack your exact family origins. Now you can get a graph telling you what percentage Welsh, West African, or Estonian you are – perhaps down to the specific village.
Our first reading this morning is in that same vein – a way of reminding a people who they are after generations of wandering as foreigners from strange land to strange land. Possibly one of the oldest portions of Sacred Scripture, today’s Old Testament text is situated narratively in Moses’ final sermon before his death, and it provides an explanation for why the people gathered for a particular feast.
“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor” and his children lived as aliens – “illegals” as some might derisively call them today – who were enslaved and abused by Pharaoh. But the Lord heard their cry and led them across the sea and through the wilderness to a place of safety.
It’s a story that should be familiar to Lutherans in the United States. We are a faith tradition uprooted and replanted by immigrants, by people who left home behind seeking opportunity or fled in search of safety. Ours are a people who still sing tunes from the old country and eat the food of our ancestors. It was only in the past hundred years that many American Lutherans introduced English as the language for church and home to replace German and Danish – even some in this very synod. In very fact, many Lutherans living in Minnesota and the Dakotas today still remember speaking Swedish as their primary language at home. Norwegian cuisine is still a staple of Lutheran congregations in the Midwest, as if to say, “Wandering Scandinavians were our ancestors, and they ate lutefisk to survive the lean years.”
Whether you were born into the Lutheran church or came to it later in life, whether you can trace your Lutheran lineage back generations or, like myself, you have only been a Lutheran for a few years, this past is part of our spiritual ancestry. The concerns of these immigrant communities shaped and continue to form the ELCA.
Deuteronomy instructs the people to celebrate God’s deliverance – and to do so with the resident foreigners among them. Remember who you are, the Law commands, and give thanks to God for the Lord has delivered you. As you give thanks, Deuteronomy says, do so with arms open to welcome the stranger – for your ancestors were strangers in a strange land.
In Saint Luke’s Gospel, we see Christ as that wandering stranger – after his baptism in the River Jordan, he was driven out into the wilderness for forty days, just as his Hebrew ancestors wandered the wilderness for forty years after the Exodus. In that empty space, the devil appeared to him, tempting our Lord. Satan took Jesus atop a high place and offered him political power as the ruler of all the nations. “Bow down and worship me, and I shall give you all that you see.”
Some two thousand years later, the devil still prowls this world, tempting us with political power: “Do you want to be great and mighty? You want to be on top? All you have to do is give into that fear you feel when you see somebody who’s different from you. They want to take over your country. Those people on the other side of that border aren’t worthy of your love; they’re dangerous, they’re gang members, and you have to keep them out. Those Muslims aren’t refugees or seeking asylum. They want to hurt you. That child is a threat. Put them in a cage. Be afraid – be very afraid. Close your doors and your hearts; let them know that they are not welcome here, that their children will never be accepted, that they will never be one of you. If you’re not careful, they might outnumber you – they, with their different language and skin color and traditions. But you can hold on to your power and take your country back if you put your trust in closed doors and barriers.”
These lies are easy to believe because they are told so often from podiums and television sets and shared widely on Facebook. But hear me say this: they are nevertheless lies from the pit of hell, sewn by the devil to divide humanity and to keep us from fulfilling the second greatest commandment – to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Filled with the power of the Spirit, Christ was able to resist the devil’s temptations. Sisters and brothers, that same Spirit was poured out upon you in the waters of Baptism. There, we pledged to renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God, to renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God, and to renounce the ways of sin that draw us from God.
The temptation did not leave us, but God has given us the strength to flee from Satan and the strength to love our neighbors – even and especially when they are sojourners in this land.
We have been grafted into the people of Israel through the waters of Baptism. A wandering Aramean was our ancestor.
We, as members of the Body of Christ, belong to the one who fled his home to seek safety in Egypt. A refugee is our savior.
We, as Lutherans in this nation, come from a long line of immigrants and refugees. Roaming Germans, Swedes, and Danes were our founders.
The foreigner living in our midst, documented or not, is one of us – living the same story as our grandmothers, our uncles, our founders, the same story as Abraham and Jacob. They are living the same story as Jesus.
Dear ones, we are strangers in a strange land – citizens of the kingdom of heaven who find ourselves residing for a time in a different empire.
When the powers and principalities and politicians and pundits tell you to fear your neighbor and to turn your back on the wandering foreigner, remember who you are: descendants of a wandering Aramean, baptized into Christ, and strengthened by God’s grace to overcome the devilish temptations of this world.
By God’s grace, we are free from fear and free to overcome temptation. We are free to love our neighbor – our Syrian neighbor, our Guatemalan neighbor, our Somali neighbor – our Catholic neighbor, our Muslim neighbor – and to care for them as though they are our own kin. We are free to open our doors and welcome in those who come to us seeking safety. We are free to feed those who come to us hungry from years of travel. We are free to be an in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, a collection of vagabonds, nomads, wandering Arameans, immigrants, and refugees, giving thanks to God for the Lord has heard our cries and will deliver us from all evil, danger, and affliction.