In the name of our Loving, Liberating, and Life-Giving God; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today we start with a reading from the Hebrew Scriptures which shows us the value of living in a culture among people with a shared narrative, a shared history, a shared religion. Not only Christians, but Jews and others, use the Old Testament to understand what it is like to be human and what it is like to live a life with God. It gives us a context for making sense of what happens in our lives, especially when it seems that life doesn’t make sense.
Scripture begins with the assumption that God exists as a powerful source of good. In this case, the Hebrews have been long-suffering. They were slaves in Egypt, and then, having gotten out from under the thumb of Pharaoh, Moses and his people wandered in the desert (an awfully long time), seeking the promised land. In our Deuteronomy reading, Moses is speaking to the people just before they cross the river into the land they all had waited so long to enter.
Through generations of travail and trouble culminating with the Exodus, these people remained people of the One God. Now we see them coming into their inheritance. Moses, their leader, is explaining how to be in covenant with God and how they are expected to behave. In this case, Moses explains what they should do to express their gratitude to God. They had everything to be grateful for. God saved them and brought them to the place where they could dwell in safety and have more than enough to eat. In thanksgiving for that blessing, they are to offer a portion of their most precious resources to God.
Another thing they must do when they have offerings to give is to come to the priest and have their offering set before the altar of God. Even as they make their sacrifice, they are supposed to say, “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number … the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, [they imposed] hard labor on us, we cried to [God and] …the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a … display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”
The Hebrews are required to remember where they came from, what they had been through, and to acknowledge generations of history as their own. They did not forget what their grandparents and their great-grandparents suffered.
Not only does their recall of the bitter road they once walked make their state of plenty more sweet, it gives people living in comfort an identity larger than themselves. When they say: I was a wandering Aramean, they make themselves members of history. Taking on the identity of the group, their history belongs to them – it is theirs. Even if the individuals saying those words had never been in the land of Aram (modern day Syria), they did not forget their heritage. In effect, they said, “At one time we have all been refugees in a strange land. We have all had times of suffering and oppression, desperation.”
Remembering served not only to enhance their gratitude to God, it also reminded them of their obligation to treat refugees with respect and care. Remembering the wandering Aramean, they are reminded that it is only by the grace of God that they are not currently refugees. They have been before and they could be again. This was the basis for the Hebrew community’s rule of hospitality to strangers – and especially the stranger in their midst.
At this time, of course, we can’t hear one of the oldest stories of people wandering away from home without also thinking of the people who currently fit that description. Whether we came across a frozen land bridge to this country many thousands of years ago, or we arrived to this land by boat hundreds of years ago (or less), at one time or another we have all been people without food, shelter, and safety. If we say “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor,” we have a responsibility to people who are currently wandering – because we are all related.
The connection of one human being with the rst of humanity is a theme St. Paul articulates when he writes: “No one who believes in Jesus will be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all.” Then we are also asserting that there is no difference between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ you and me, past or present. Paul says We are all embraced in love by God. This is an equalizing love which removes distinctions from among us.
The story of Jesus being in the wilderness for forty days is meant to remind us of the 40 years his Hebrew forebears spent wandering in the Sinai desert. Even Jesus, when he was alone in the wilderness, was hungry, wandering, and without shelter. This was the experience of people in the exodus, it was Jesus’ experience after he was baptized, and it is the experience of so many Ukrainians this very day.
Away from home with nowhere to go, they are at the mercy of others. They have nothing but the hope of compassion from people they do not know. They are starving, wounded, and freezing.
Even if we have never been to Ukraine, we feel deeply connected to them because we are part of people who have been powerless, lonely, poor, and oppressed. Even if we can’t claim personal memory of such an experience, then we remember that it was once our own ancestors who were wandering Arameans. Our people have been refugees before, and we may be again.
Scripture explains suffering as something we all go through. It is a common human experience. When we come to understand this, we see that we are not alone in sorrow or in suffering. We learn that this is what it is like to be a human being.
What keeps humans going in the worst of times? Hope. We get hope and gain trust from these stories in Scripture because it is there that we learn that God loves us all, not just some of us. Understanding the ubiquity of God’s love leads us to see that being beloved of God is also what it is like to be a human being.
Hearing the story of the wandering Aramean helps us understand the large, over-arching story of humanity. We learn that this is THE STORY of people. It is also the story of our group (or tribe), and it is the story of ourselves. Taking on the identity of the wandering refugee gives us a perspective of compassion.
Through that lens, we assess what is required of us now in terms of current events across the world – and across the street. We see that we are not hungry or homeless. Our relations to wandering ancestors obliges us to provide for those who wander now.
From the perspective of Holy Scripture, we see the ways of the world. We know that one of the ways God is at work in the world is through people. Hearing the words of Moses with the knowledge that his community did go on to live in the promised land speaks to our hearts about hope – and it makes our responsibility to those who have yet to cross the river, resound in our hearts, and minds, and souls.
The Rev. Dawn M. Frankfurt
March 5, 2022
St. James Episcopal Church, Wichita, KS