A Wandering Aramean

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber on the First Sunday of Lent, February 17, 2013, at St. Paul’s Church, Bantam.

Some years ago I inherited from my parents a fan-shaped chart like a stylized peacock’s tail that shows the family ancestry back, in some cases, eight or ten generations. My mother was the family genealogist and I learned from her that there are professional genealogists, tracers of lost persons, who, for a fee, will look through parish records, ancient cemeteries, crumbling documents of every sort in an effort to find out who your ancestors were. It’s a large and lucrative business. And it makes me wonder what it is about us that makes us so curious to know where we come from.

It isn’t anything new. Maybe you remember the story in “Roots” of how Alexander Haley found an old man in an African village who could recite the traditions of two hundred years. The “Reader’s Digest” produced a version of the Bible a few years ago that condensed the Bible primarily by leaving out all the “begats.” When you leave them out, you’ve left out a lot. A fair amount of the gospel is simply genealogies because thousands of years ago, in fact as long as we know anything of the human race, it seemed important to people to know where they came from, who their ancestors were.

Why? Why is it that we can’t be content to shape our own identity, to be who we are and be satisfied with that? What difference does it make to me that one of my great-grand-fathers was an architect in Australia and another was a French immigrant of Basque ancestry? As Christians, on the other hand, we very often do seem to identify ourselves simply in terms of a personal relationship with God, in terms of creed and baptism. I wonder if we’ve stopped to think that there might be another way.

In the Old Testament lesson this morning we read about a rite, a liturgy: God’s people are instructed to come with their offerings and state their identity in words like these: “My father was a wandering Aramean . . .” And that seems to suggest another dimension: that who I am is who my forebears were. Why does that matter either to God or to me?

Well, first, it is true that when we are baptized we become part of a community, a body; I am united through the people of Israel to Abraham and Isaac and Joseph and Moses and Joshua and the prophets.  My ancestry goes back to the apostles, and beyond them, back another thousand years and more. And we become part of this ancient community usually, long before we can affirm a personal faith. We are baptized into it long before we could possibly make an informed, competent choice.  We become part of a community which exists not just today in this place but world-wide and back through time over two thousand years. And this Christian Church again traces its ancestry back to a wandering Aramean. And when we come to communion, when we take part in the liturgy, we re-enact a drama which our ancestors in the faith have re-enacted through twenty centuries, a drama which goes back indeed some fourteen hundred years before that.

The Creed and statements of personal faith may get our attention, but perhaps more important still is the drama we take part in which is far older than the creed and shapes us far more powerfully by engaging not just our minds but our bodies, our emotions, our whole being. Sometimes, you know, on the 4th of July or Thanksgiving Day we dress up in the costumes of colonial times as a way of reminding ourselves of who we are. Much more powerfully, every Sunday, clergy dress in the garb of the Roman empire and we step aside from the world around us to remember that we are an ancient people called by God to work out God’s purpose in history. It’s a matter of who we are, of our identity, and it’s expressed in drama, in action, far more than in words and creeds.

Secondly, the identity we are given is not so much a matter of roots as rootlessness. What is our origin? Where do we come from? Well, if you trace it back, back to the Hebrew tribes, back to Abraham, you discover that we began as nomads, as wanderers. And the Bible asks us to see this not as a beginning to despise and reject but as something to cherish.

It’s another interesting aspect of human psychology that one generation may seek to reject its origins while the next generation seeks to reclaim them. American immigrants in the first generation try to Americanize themselves and forget their past but the next generation very often gries to reclaim it.  It’s the third generation that forms Irish-American and Italian American societies and goes on tours of their ancestral countries.  So, too, the first generations in the land of Israel tried to settle down and forget their wandering past and be like the Canaanites.  But they were given a formula to use when they came to worship that said: “Remember; remember who you are:” And why? Because there is something important in that rootlessness; something essential to who they were – and who we are.

Why, after all, didn’t God call a settled and prosperous people?  Apparently God wanted people without power or possessions.  And maybe there’s also something in us that remembers that rootless past and wants to go back and be like that again.  You can’t pack a thick mattress and place settings for twelve and wedding presents you don’t want but don’t dare give away on a camel. You can’t take it with you.  In the desert, you depend much more on your resourcefulness than on possessions.  So, look what happens    every summer:  there’s an enormous exodus to the wilderness, the mountains, the sea-shore, whatever desert we can find.  We seem to feel the need to slough off our rootedness, the security of a settled life, the comfort of possessions, and simplify our lives, experience again what we can learn from a time of wandering and homelessness and rootlessness, what it is to be called and chosen and led, what it is to be given a land, what it is to depend on God alone for life and leadership and land.

Have you ever stopped to think how many of the most popular recreations today are a kind of return to the desert? Well, they are, in the sense that nomadic people are limited in what they can carry, And what’s our rationale? What’s our excuse? Well, we say that we just want to get away from it all and “find some peace” and “a chance to be ourselves.” And we go even further than that in imitating our desert ancestors: we test ourselves. We take up mountain climbing and hang gliding, and white-water canoeing; we look for challenges and put our lives at risk. Why? To find out who we are; to get to know ourselves,

So, for the same reason, God called a nation of nomads, wanderers; people not tied to possessions, people not rooted in land. And he led them and tested them so they could begin to understand who they were: a people for God’s own possession. Their calling was not to possess but to be possessed, not to own but to be owned. That’s the second point.

Third: this identity involves giving.  “When you have entered the land the Lord your God is giving you…and have taken possession of it and settled in it, take some of the first fruits…and put them in a basket … and say to the priest… ‘My father was a wandering Aramean”,and now I bring the first fruits of the soil…” (Deut.26:1 -10) Identity is found and claimed in the act of offering. And the point, I think, is not very different. If we seem to need to reclaim our identity from time to time isn’t it true that we also need to free ourselves of the final bondage of possession which is money. We cannot know ourselves so long as we are possessed by money.

The problem of human identity finally, it seems to me, is that our lives are shaped by whatever we value, by whatever gives us a feeling of security. And any material possession involves a lessening of human value a reduction of human potential. What I mean is that If I depend on my home, on my life insurance, on my bank account, I am dependent on something inhuman, something less than personal, something that diminishes me. And that’s why stewardship and tithing are so important. That’s why it’s far more important that we give significantly to God than that we meet a budget. We need to give.  It’s not because the church has to pay its bills, but we need to give because until we give, until we re-establish our freedom of our possessions, we cannot truly know ourselves; indeed, we cannot begin to be ourselves. We have to give to the point where we begin again to be insecure, place our lives at risk, because at that point we establish two things at once: our freedom of possession and our dependence on God. And then we know who we are: children of God who depend on God for life.  We learn our identity by giving. God calls us to be a people like him and God is above all, one who gives.

I heard a story once about a high valley in the jungles of New Guinea inhabited by two primitive tribes. Centuries ago, by accident or design, no one really remembers, one member of one tribe killed one member of the other and someone from the second tribe got revenge locked in a bloody feud as each attempts to avenge the injury done by the other. It’s a fertile valley, the soil is good, and the potential is there for both tribes to live well. But they have lived for centuries in fear and insecurity and indeed poverty because they have chosen to identify themselves in terms of that on-going feud. They’re imprisoned by that history and unable to realize the potential all around them. It’s a parable, of course, of the world itself which is also, in today’s terms, a rather small valley with enormous potential and with inhabitants who seem to see no other way to identify themselves than in terms of ancient feuds which neither side is able to forget or overcome. But more important, it’s a symbol of all the hundreds of ways everyone of us imprisons himself and herself in fears and false securities rather than accept our role and find our Identity in the Christian community, and an ancient drama, and the act of giving.

I heard another story recently of a woman, widowed relatively young, responsible for the up-bringing of several small children and dependent on a very meager income. But year after year she tithed that meager income to her church. Finally one year the elders of the church decided that they should do something about this and they went to her and said, “We’re grateful for all you’ve done but we think it’s too much to ask and so we want you to know that we’ve agreed to free you of any obligation to tithe.” And the woman said, “I want you to know that you have just taken away the one thing that gives my life meaning.”

And isn’t that a profound understanding of what it means to identify ourselves as Christians, as people? Who am I? Am I one who gets, or one who gives? Lent is a time for asking that question – and answering it this way: “A wandering Aramean was my father…” That is to say: I am one who finds identity in an ancient community, a community which has no roots or possession in this world. I know who I am by taking part in a repeated drama, by remembering and by giving. I identify myself with those who have followed the way of giving, the way of love, the way of Christ.

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