Last Wednesday we launched into our annual Lenten journey. This first Sunday in Lent begins with the familiar story of Jesus being tempted by Satan in the wilderness. It will end on Palm Sunday with the reading of his passion and death on a cross. Over the course of Lent we will rehearse familiar liturgies and rituals, gather weekly for a meal and spiritual nourishment, refrain in worship from saying a particular word of celebration, mark the days by fasting, and in many other ways prepare with joy for the Pascal feast. All of this helps us to remember… to remember our Lord’s walk we know as the Way of the Cross and to remember not even the grave can contain God’s Spirit.
The rhythm of doing this annually may be arbitrary, but it is a good one. Most likely as soon as the first human beings discerned the yearly cycle of the seasons they began to celebrate annual rituals. Some of these are related to the movement of the sun while others are based in moments of birth, union, and death. Some involve an entire nation while others are deeply personal. Some take place on a specific day, others stretch out for a longer period of time. Each, in its own way, provides an opportunity to pause, to remember, and to reflect. Absent such rituals we would soon forget those things that matter most; the things that shape, mold, and define who we are.
In this morning’s first lesson we read of the origin of one of the first annual rituals celebrated by God’s people once they enter the Promised Land. They gather at the town of Shechem, which is lies about halfway between Jerusalem to the south and the region of Galilee in the north. God instructs the people to erect an altar of unhewn stones on which to place their offerings. God directs them to carve the commandments into the stones so that as the years pass by the people will not forget them. The altar is to serve as a permanent reminder of the covenant they have made with God.
Every year the people regather in this spot to make an offering of the first fruits of the field. Imagine surviving on what you stored for the winter months, some years cutting back consumption as supplies run thin, collecting the initial produce of the new growing season, and (rather than eating it) offering it to God. This ritual makes several profound statements:
· Give to God the first of what you have, not what is left over.
· Trust God will provide.
· The need to be thankful is more significant than my need to be satisfied.
The Deuteronomy text instructs that some of the offering be given to the priests. This is what sustains them until the collection of the next festival’s offering. And the text states what is left is to be shared at a community meal (so yes, there is a biblical mandate for the Pot-Luck dinner but no, it does not specify fried chicken, deviled eggs, or something made with Jello should be served). Still, this directive to gather as a community suggests one cannot live out the faith through private devotion and individual piety alone.
As each person makes an offering, the contributor recites an ancient creedal history:
A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying 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. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.
Why does every person recite this and why do it every year? Well, you only remember the parts of your story you tell and retell. And what you tell has a way of shaping who you are and what matters most to you.
The men of the parish I served in Richmond used to gather monthly for a bag lunch. Charles McMurdo – one of the church’s founding members – always brought something from the past for what affectionately become known as “Mr. Mac’s Show & Tell.” One month he passed around a copy of a parish budget from the early 50’s. Typed on a single side of a 5x7 sheet of paper, it showed the church’s annual expenses to be a whopping $24,000. All gathered zeroed in quickly on the Rector’s salary package, which came in at the princely sum of $6,000 for the entire year. This, of course, solicited barking about returning to the good olde days.
My eye, however, was drawn to the line item in the budget for diocesan giving. It designated $6,800 for support to the wider mission of the church, a figure just shy of 30% of all the parish’s income. Why such a staggering commitment? And to deepen the mystery, by the time I was called to serve as rector some forty years later, the percentage of giving had fallen below 5% and the total amount was… still $6,800. Why had the founding members been so generous and why did the amount of giving become frozen over the years? Mr. Mac could offer no insight. None of the other longtime members had a clue either.
While pouring through old documents years later I learned that the parish’s spacious wooden property had been purchased by the diocese and given to the church as a site to erect its facilities. This too was something Mr. Mac and other founding members did not recall. I theorized diocesan giving in the early church budget reflected a sense of gratitude and partnership, but as the memory of the connection between gift and giving faded, commitment to diocesan funding waned. As the percentage decreased, over time this budget item became more of an obligation resented by leadership than an offering of thanksgiving. All of this happened because the story had been forgotten.
Reflecting on the power and importance of stories, I have come to see how they foster mystery, meaning, identity, and wisdom:
· They connect us to the Divine Being behind all creation, thus putting us in touch with the fundamental Mystery found in all things.
· They allow us to ponder what has significance and purpose, thus giving us a sense of the meaning of life.
· They link us with our ancestors in the faith by inviting us to appropriate their stories as our own, thus giving us a sense of identity and place.
· They enable us to understand the precedents for what we encounter, thus equipping us with the wisdom of time-honored ways of acting and reacting.
Story telling and remembering, as individuals, as a family, as a community of faith, and as a nation is so essential God’s people did it through the offering of the first produce of the new growing season after a long, meager, drab winter of nothing but rations for dinner. As Jesus noted while fighting off temptation, every stone can be turned to bread, but this will not satisfy your deepest spiritual need. We need the stories of God’s encounters with the human family and the mystery, meaning, identity, and wisdom they provide.
So we begin our Lenten journey by remembering to remember. We affirm our need to tell our stories – our personal stories, the stories of our family, the stories of this church, the stories of our community, and the stories of our nation – as we revisit The Story of God’s love made known in Jesus Christ.