Lent is a season of reflection that begins on Ash Wednesday with words of confession, marked by ashes, and accompanied by a word of forgiveness. The journey continues with a word about how the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness where he fasted and prayed and was tested for forty days (Luke 4:1-12). These forty days of Lent mirror the forty years that Israel wandered in the wilderness having their faith tested.
The reading from Deuteronomy 26 invites Israel to bring in an offering of Thanksgiving to celebrate the completion of the exodus from Egypt and the arrival in the Land of Promise. In words attributed to Moses, the people of God are directed to lay down their offerings and recite a confessional statement that begins with the words: “A wandering Aramean was my Ancestor.”
We don’t know when this portion of Deuteronomy was written, but it may date to the eighth century B.C.E. That was a time of deep anxiety. The northern kingdom of Israel disappeared and the southern kingdom of Judah was threatened with extinction by the Assyrian empire. These words served as a word of encouragement to the people, reminding them that they served the God who rescued them from captivity and delivered them into the Promised Land. In bringing in these reminders of God’s faithfulness, they remember too that they were once migrants who had no home to call their own.
History is full of migration stories. Humans have always been on the move. Our ancestors may have moved for many different reasons, but these moves helped form our identities. The fact is – every one of us gathered here this morning is a child of immigrants, whether those immigrant ancestors came to these shores four hundred years ago or last week.
My ancestry is European – I think!. My ancestors came from England, Ireland, Germany, and Holland. There’s a bit of Scotland and Wales, and probably some Viking heritage as well in me. Some of my ancestors on my father’s side came to Massachusetts in the early seventeenth century, and then went on to help found the city of Milford, Connecticut. My maternal grandfather, on the other hand, migrated from Holland in the 1920s and married grandmother, whose paternal grandparents immigrated from Ireland in the 19th century.
We all have stories to tell. Some of you have even gone to such great lengths to trace your ancestry that you’ve had your DNA analyzed. These studies can be a lot of fun, but we also remember that not all stories are the same. If you are of African descent, it’s quite likely that your ancestors were brought here against their will via the Middle Passage. If you are of Mexican ancestry, your ancestors may have watched as the United States annexed your country. One day you were a Mexican citizen and the next you were living as a non-citizen in a different country.
When we lived in Santa Barbara, the community celebrated Old Spanish Days. There was a big parade with lots of horses, along with a festival that included lots of food, carnival rides, and Spanish dancing. This Fiesta celebrated a big wedding that took place in the early days of Santa Barbara. The parade route led from the waterfront to Old Mission Santa Barbara. That was where the big wedding was held that united two important Spanish families. Of course, not everyone celebrated Fiesta. The Chumash people wanted us to remember that they lived in the region before the Spanish came. Like the Canaanites who lived in the land of Promise before Israel crossed the Jordan, the Chumash remembered how they lost their land and their culture when the Spanish arrived. The American story is a complicated one, with its own shadow side. The same is true for Israel.
Deuteronomy instructs the people to remember that a “wandering Aramean” was their ancestor, so that they might give thanks that they finally had a home to call their own. Now, who is this wandering Aramean? Could it be Abraham and Sarah, who left their homeland and wandered about until they rested in Canaan? I think so, but it could also be their grandson, Jacob. After all, he too lived in tents in a strange land, and then migrated to Egypt during a famine. The confession that the people recited declared that their ancestors lived in Egypt as aliens, as foreigners. Over time their numbers grew, and the Egyptians got nervous. So they enslaved Israel, but God heard their cries and rescued them. God led that people out of Egypt into a land “flowing with milk and honey.” Because God was faithful and blessed them with great abundance, they brought the first fruits of the harvest to the Temple as a sign of Thanksgiving for God’s faithfulness. Not only that, but Moses asked them to share their bounty with the Levites, a priestly clan without land, and with the aliens who lived in their midst. After all, they too had once been foreigners living in a strange land.
It is good to hear this story about ancestral immigrants at a time when there are signs of angry resentment directed at new immigrants and people who look different and worship differently than the majority community. This anti-immigrant sentiment isn’t a new phenomenon, but it has become a political hot potato. We hear calls to build walls. We hear calls to ban Muslims from our country, simply because they are Muslims. Then we hear praises given to the so-called Asian-American “model minority,” who are depicted as assimilating into what is considered the normative “majority white” culture. But this message marginalizes Asian Americans and pits them against other immigrant peoples.
We hear a lot of political chatter about taking back America. The question is, who is doing the taking back, and who is it that these people think are undermining America? Is it people whose color, culture, or religion is different? What makes for a true American?
It is good to hear the reminder in Deuteronomy 26 that the people of God are an immigrant people. It is good for us to offer up signs of thanksgiving to God, who provides this bounty, which we’re invited to share in. As we hear this invitation, we also hear an invitation to embrace the other.
Grace Ji-Sun Kim is a Korean-American theologian whom I recently encountered. She has written about the Asian-American immigrant experience. She reminds us that not all Asians are the same. Being Chinese isn’t the same as being Korean or Japanese. She also writes about the struggles that immigrants from Asia have endured, including acts of Congress that excluded Asian peoples from immigrating to America, acts of Congress that were abolished in 1965. These acts of Congress were passed because Asians were considered a peril to American society.
Since Lent invites us to look inside and take care of the things that keep us from embracing God and each other, it is good to remember what it means to be a migrant, to be an alien, to be a stranger in a strange land. It is important that we hear the stories of those who have been excluded, marginalized, and invalidated, so that we might embrace each other as children of God. Grace points out the Spirit of God “empowers all of us to work toward embrace rather than exclusion.” Then she adds this important word:
Embracing the Other involves empathetic listening, overcoming differences, and being in solidarity with those who are marginalized and subordinated. It means sharing love and being loved. It involves increasing ones Chi to make one a healthier and fulfilled person. It may involve a hug or a spiritual embrace like Jesus and the Samaritan woman. We need to understand that we are connected through our Chi, and healing the brokenness between genders and people of different racial ethnicity can be achieved.[Grace Ji-Sun Kim, Embracing the Other, p. 168.]
On this first Sunday of Lent, as we hear the call to celebrate God’s bounty, let us remember our calling as Disciples to be a “movement of wholeness in a fragmented world.” We can start this remembrance by remembering our own migrant story. It may also involve confessing the privileges that American culture has afforded at least some of us. I for one must recognize the benefits accorded to me as white, male, straight, and Christian. Except for the religious part, I didn’t choose any of the other parts of my identity. But, they grant me benefits not accorded to those who do not share these characteristics.
As we continue the Lenten journey, may we remember from whence we came, so that led by the Spirit, we might embrace each other as children of God, to whom a great bounty has been provided.