FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT
Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, you led your people through the wilderness and brought them to the promised land. Guide us now, so that, following your Son, we may walk safely through the wilderness of this world toward the life you alone can give, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien…” Deuteronomy 26:5.
The most dangerous lies are the ones we tell ourselves about ourselves. Lies are the stuff of national mythologies, those stories that justify the existence and sovereignty of nation states, legitimize their wars and justify their occupation of lands they call their own. The religions of the ancient near east out of which the people of Israel emerged all had some version of divine origin. Generally speaking, the people of a given nation were descendants of gods or demigods. The ruling monarch was a “son” of the founding deity reigning on the god’s or gods’ behalf. The stratified existence of all others from royal henchmen down to slaves was thus divinely ordered. Your place is the one divinely ordained for you-and you therefore should be content to stay in it! These myths answer questions about who we are, where we came from and how we ought to live.
One can see in this, I think, echoes of what is commonly called “American exceptionalism.” We Americans likewise have our myths about how our ancestors were drawn to this land by God’s providence to build a nation founded on Christian principals destined to “settle the new world.” The myth explains why we do not view the dispossession and outright slaughter of indigenous populations in our country the same way we now excoriate Russia’s efforts to annex land belonging to Ukraine. It also explains why such a frantic effort is under way by so many American politicians to keep the inconvenient truths about slavery, the failure of reconstruction and the atrocities committed under Jim Crow far from the sanitized history taught to grade school children. Facts challenging the truth of our founding mythology are dangerous to societal stability. As soon as doubt is cast upon the myth of American exceptionalism, those of us in positions of privilege feel our places slipping away as the unprivileged begin to reject the places assigned to them. The stability of “our way of life” depends on faith in our founding myths.
Israel’s founding narrative stands national mythology on its head. So far from being descendants of gods, Israel’s matriarchs and patriarchs were “wanderers” with no citizenship anywhere. The people that came to be called Israel were taken from the bottom of the social and religious hierarchy, from slaves valued as little more than beasts of burden doing the most menial and back breaking work in the merciless machinery of empire. Israel did not win its land through the valor of its warriors. Psalm 44:3. Neither was the land given to Israel in perpetuity. The land was a gift given in trust. Like the rest of the world, the land ultimately belonged to God alone. Psalm 24:1. The right to occupy the land was contingent upon Israel’s faithful and proper use of it. So far from being expelled or enslaved, aliens residing in the land were to be loved and given the same rights as citizens. Leviticus 19:33-34. Starvation and homelessness were to be prevented by unlimited generosity. Deuteronomy 15:7-11. Israel’s founding narrative compelled an entirely different sort of life for both individuals and the community.
Of course, Israel was less than fully successful in living out the implications of its story. About these failures Israel is brutally honest. “Both we and our ancestors have sinned; we have committed iniquity, have done wickedly,” says one of Israel’s great national sagas. Psalm 106:6. The newly liberated people of Israel rebelled repeatedly against Moses on the long journey from bondage to freedom. Psalm 106:7. They “despised” the land to which God brought them and doubted God’s promise to bring them safely into it. Psalm 106:24. They repeatedly fell back into idolatry. Psalm 106:36. There was no “whitewashing” of Israel’s story in its holy scriptures. This is a narrative in which the whole truth is told, the good, the bad and the ugly.
So, too, in the gospels we tell a lot of unflattering stories on ourselves. The story of discipleship the Bible tells is littered with failure. The twelve followers of Jesus fight amongst themselves, fail to understand their Lord’s teachings, quarrel over who should be considered the greatest, betray their Lord, deny him under pressure and desert him in the end. There are no heroes in this saga. Yet in both the New Testament and the Hebrew Scriptures we encounter a God who refuses to give up on a wayward, unfaithful and undeserving people. We meet a God who pleads with us, “yet even now….return to me with all your heart.” We meet a God who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love…” Joel 2:12-13. Before this God, we can afford to be brutally honest with ourselves and with one another-and therein lies our salvation.
The church is, or should be, the place where uncomfortable truths are confronted. Paul admonishes the believers in Ephesus “let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.” Ephesians 4:25. I think the most difficult truth we disciples in the United States must face is our complicity with our national mythology and the way in which it has distorted our faith and practice. And there is no better way to begin than returning to our founding narrative. We need to remember that our spiritual ancestors where sojourners with no country, slaves to an oppressive regime, exiles displaced from their homeland, a hated minority living in a land under military occupation, sinners, outcasts and outsiders. That our faith and its symbols have been so easily hijacked by defenders of white supremacy, antivaxers, antirefugee and antiimmigrant forces speaks poorly of our practices, witness and teaching. That the Bible can be so easily milked by those who would preach a gospel of wealth and power in the name of one who so thoroughly identified with the poor and powerless ought to shame us all.
Throughout the weeks of Lent, I want to focus on how our story as disciples of Jesus differs from our national mythology and reveals its falsehoods and distortions. More importantly, I want to focus on the “better hope” to which Jesus calls us and how we might live that hope faithfully. Below is a poem telling a truth that much of white America is desperate to suppress. Predominately white churches, such as my own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, need to hear this truth, let it break our hearts, lead us back to the witness of our scriptural ancestors and move us to lives of genuine faith and practice.
The Slave Auction
The sale began—young girls were there,
Defenseless in their wretchedness,
Whose stifled sobs of deep despair
Revealed their anguish and distress.
And mothers stood, with streaming eyes,
And saw their dearest children sold;
Unheeded rose their bitter cries,
While tyrants bartered them for gold.
And woman, with her love and truth—
For these in sable forms may dwell—
Gazed on the husband of her youth,
With anguish none may paint or tell.
And men, whose sole crime was their hue,
The impress of their Maker’s hand,
And frail and shrinking children too,
Were gathered in that mournful band.
Ye who have laid your loved to rest,
And wept above their lifeless clay,
Know not the anguish of that breast,
Whose loved are rudely torn away.
Ye may not know how desolate
Are bosoms rudely forced to part,
And how a dull and heavy weight
Will press the life-drops from the heart.
Source: American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century (The Library of America, 1993). Francis Ellen Watkins Harper (1825 –1911) was an African-American abolitionist, suffragist, poet, teacher, public speaker, and writer. She was active in social reform and was a member of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. She published her first book of poetry at the age of 20, making her one of the first African-American published writers. In 1851 she worked with the Pennsylvania Abolition Society helping escaped slaves along the Underground Railroad on their way to Canada. You can read more about Francis Ellen Watkins Harper and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.