together, or not
This word in Deuteronomy on this first Sunday in Lent is worth a closer look. It tells the dramatic story of the Israelites, our spiritual ancestors, as they travel on a journey that is universal in its message to us in particular but to the world as well. We know this story in general I think, how Abraham and Sarah were told to go where they did not know and they went; how the Israelites living as slaves in Egypt followed Moses to the promised land, but we may have overlooked some of the details. There are two details in this reading this morning that I want to call to your attention because they have something to say about the foundations of our faith but also because they have something to say to us as we live faithfully in a world broken into pieces with sectarian strife and nationalistic fervor.
In the details we will see that this is a story about aliens. Abraham and Sarah went down into Egypt and lived as aliens there. Later when the people are delivered from Egypt to the promised land of milk and honey they were given these instructions: You, together with the Levites (those who do not own land) 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.
You, together with the aliens among you, will share the abundance of God. With the aliens among you.
Alien: adjective- Owing political allegiance to another country or government; foreign. Belonging to, characteristic of, or derived from, another country, place, society or person; not one’s own, unfamiliar, strange. Noun- an unnaturalized foreign resident of a country. A member of another family, people, or region, or the like. A person who is excluded from some group; an outsider.
The dictionary makes it all so simple. It is what it is, until we actually step out the door and live in the world. We humans have obviously decided that we need to distinguish between them and us but I wonder from what I am reading of the holy story that undergirds our spiritual reality if that is what God had in mind. Certainly God knows that there are distinctions between us. There are aliens or no notice would have been taken of the alien status of Abraham or the alien status of those who would reside with them in the “promised land” or anywhere else I might add. What is interesting, however, is that being an alien is not about who you are but where you are in the Biblical context. Abraham was an Israelite and was an alien. Later it would be the Israelites who would be asked to live in peace with aliens, those different from them. I daresay there is no one in this room today who’s not descended from someone who was an alien at one time or another. In our country we all came from someplace else. Of course now that we are here we are reluctant to share the abundance with anybody else and that is where God comes in. And faith.
One of the questions raised when I asked you to give me some questions for preaching in Lent was the question about the existence of Satan. As it happens I was reading one of Flannery O’Conner’s essays about writing this week and she reminded me of what Baudelaire had said before: The devil’s greatest wile is to convince us that he does not exist. As corroboration to this a book was written a few years ago entitled The Death of Satan. This was not too long after the famous death of God conversations that were going on for a while back in the second half of the last century which I all related to what Annie Dillard said about the sacred groves being lost in a world that no longer has the patience for such things as God and Satan. Some of you might know that long before one of the myths about the origin of Satan is that he was a fallen angel. As theology this makes sense because the idea of Satan is to posit an opposite to God and so it is Satan’s job to separate us from God or in a word to alienate us from God and from one another, to create aliens for the purpose of braking humankind up into warring factions with likely result of the destruction of what God has made which is pretty much what this so-called Satan thing does. God on the other hand is the creator, calling the creation to live together in peace and love. And so we have the rub: together, or not.
When Satan visited with Jesus in the desert Jesus was an alien. He was removed from society, isolated from everything, vulnerable to the big nothing that the wilderness represents. The temptation in that wilderness for Jesus was to opt out of the struggle. He is offered easy but phony solutions that solve nothing but continue the status quo of a humankind unwilling to overcome their own interests for the sake of the interests of all. Jesus knew that the problems of the world broken up into alien pieces warring with each other for control and self-enrichment would not be solved with a magic potion; that God was not meant to do for us what we have to do for ourselves; and that is to struggle with our alienation and seek to learn and practice risk-taking love to break down the wall between them and us and to override that fear that says destroy or be destroyed, control or be controlled, take or be taken. It is central to the challenge of faith just how much we are prepared to give up of our own interests to serve the interests of God.
It is my take on the human condition that we were created in the first place for the purpose of love and love is not possible without the freedom to choose to love or not. From this great creative experiment the great drama of human life unfolds breaking God’s heart a thousand times a thousand times a thousand. We are free to seek reconciliation or not. We are also free to alienate the stranger, to build walls to keep us apart, to fight wars to create a false sense of security, to keep the abundance (God’s bounty) for ourselves, allowing poverty to eventually overwhelm us all. We call it in plain language sin and sin is also a result of freedom. It is the prize given to Adam and Eve by the snake, the freedom to do and think as we choose, to seek God or not.
But love is still possible, too. And so brings meaning to our struggle as a church in the world to be a place where aliens are welcome, where we reach out to all others not just those we know who are like us seeing with the eyes of God that we are all related as human beings in God’s own creation, created to live together in peace, children of the creator God. That we do not live together in peace is our responsibility. If you want to think that there is something called Satan that is responsible for tricking us into thinking that the struggle to love the world is for fools and it makes more sense to take care of yourself first and is orchestrating this whole mess off in the wings somewhere just remember that even Satan requires a decision. And whether
Satan is an existential being or not there is something very real indeed that is calling us away from God. These words are what we use to talk about things that are not easily bound by words. From the very beginning of the witness of God’s holy word in the Bible this great truth about the decision to be made has been known. It was Moses who said I put before you good and evil, life and death, you choose. Jesus rejected the temptation to avoid the struggle of love and the suffering that comes with it. He chose love with no easy answers and no pat solutions, the promise of a daily struggle to be faithful to what is so easily dismissed as foolishness in the world that cares only for itself against all others and make no mistake it is easier to go with the world, to blend in, to get what we can get for ourselves. Jesus chose to go against the tide, to struggle. He chose love even as love chose him. We too can choose love. It is a real choice. It is the choice that chooses to care for others as well as ourselves and especially for the least of us, the hungry and weak, the dispossessed, the alien. Such love can sometimes bring one into conflict not unlike the temptations Jesus faced when it seemed that what he was being asked to do was good thing not a bad thing. It is not always easy to know what is right. I am not going to tell you what to think about the aliens among us, those undocumented persons escaping from poverty, those whose sexual orientation is still not accepted by some, those who speak another language, those who see the world differently than us with different loyalties and expectations, those of different races and creeds all crashing together in God’s beautiful and bountiful world where we live. It is our struggle of love to decide who is them and who is us whatever shape the alien takes in our minds and hearts in the days before us and what will bring us together or what will break us apart and what is it that God wants and does that still matter to us.
If it does, remember what it says here about what God has instructed God’s people to do: 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.
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