Deuteronomy 26:1-11, first Sunday in Lent
by Rev. Kristin Philipson
I was catching up on the phone with a friend; we’d covered my news. “And what about you,” I said, “how are you?” “Well, the last time we talked,” she said, “I didn’t get a chance to tell you, but my husband lost his job last fall, in October.” Now this friend lives in Illinois and in that state her husband is entitled to six-months employment insurance and now it’s March and it will run out in April. They are picturing their income now like an hour glass, and the available sand is inching lower and lower. “Do you know, he’s applied to eighty jobs?” my friend said. “Eighty. We might have to move.” It felt distinctly unsatisfying to say goodbye and end the call because we were stuck in the middle of the story. Her husband had lost his job and…well, we had to leave it there, in the middle the things.
As humans we don’t like to leave stories in the middle and unresolved; our psyches are primed to seek resolution the same way our taste buds are primed to feel on edge until they taste something sweet after dinner. We will stay in the car even after a long commute just so we can hear the end of an interview on the radio. This is why cliff hangers at the end of a season of television are so effective at getting us to tune in again – we have to know how the story ends. When we’re stuck in the middle of things we carry around with us a brewing tension and anxiety – is everything going to be okay, really? What is going to happen to them – to us? It is hard to sit with irresolution.
At first glance the words from the book of Deuteronomy read like instructions to a people who have finally arrived at the end of a long and harrowing journey; a people about to taste the sweetness of having made it through to this new place, the Promised Land, and it seems like we’re reading their story as it’s happening. The people of Israel had left Egypt – left everything – left it all in the middle of the night, grabbed the bread dough before it had even risen and walked straight through the Red Sea, full of vigour and nerves and energy. There were challenges, but at night they’d talk and dream about what it would be like, that day when they would finally arrive in God’s Promised Land. For forty years they wandered in the desert, knowing just what they were going to do when they made it through. “When you have entered the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance…and settled in it,” they would say to each other, and in the Scriptures it’s as though we’re sitting around the campfire with listening with them, reading to taste the satisfaction of that moment, as sweet as the first peach of summer, warm and juicy from ripening on the tree.
In fact the words of Deuteronomy were written for a people nowhere near the Promised Land and far from any kind of arrival; a people caught up in the unresolved tension of the middle – a people who worried whether everything would be okay; a people who wondered what would happen to them; a people grown accustomed to uncertainty and unsettledness and sudden change. The words of Deuteronomy were first written down after the Promised Land had been invaded and made into a vassal state of the Assyrian Empire. They were revised hundreds of years later when the Babylonian army invaded, capturing and forcibly relocating the intellectuals and the elite into exile in Babylon. But the stories in Deuteronomy were finally written down because the people found that what filled them with courage, conviction and hope as they lived with the unresolved tension and unsettledness of being in the middle of things were their stories. They found courage and conviction and hope when reciting their history with God – “my father was a wandering Aramean,” they would read, “and he went down to Egypt with a few people…and became a great nation…. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer…. So the Lord brought us out…with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with miraculous signs and wonders.” The recall and the recitation of their stories seemed to make all the difference to the people of Israel as they muddled through the middle of things.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion writes. She was talking about how writers make sense of the world. “We live entirely…by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images,” she writes. As people of faith, but I think our stories serve a slightly different purpose; rather than imposing meaning and order on disparate images, we tell our stories to help us see the meaning that is already there.
My grandmother tells this story of when she was a little girl. It was the depression and they lived on a farm and her parents weren’t making a go of it and her father – my great grandfather – had to take a job up in Yellowknife working in the mines. He had to sign a contract to stay for a year and he had to leave my great-grandmother all alone on that farm with the four kids – the oldest was about 11 or 12 and my grandma was 9, with a 3-year-old sister and a little one-year-old brother.
My grandma remembers the day there was a knock on the door of the one-room school house where she and her older sister went to school. It had a cloakroom so she couldn’t see who knocked but she could clearly hear that they were out of breath. “Come quick,” the teacher called to my grandma’s older sister – just 11 or 12 – “you’ve got to run home quick,” the teacher said. The baby was sick and their mother needed to go to the doctor in Edmonton and someone had to watch the three-year-old. The next day my grandma – just 9 – and her big sister – just 11 or 12 – packed a bag and got on their horses with their little three-year-old sister and rode to their grandparents’ house where they left her and then rode back home. “Why didn’t you stay with your grandparents as well,” I asked my grandma, and she said, “well, someone had to watch the farm while our mother was with the baby at the hospital.” Their mother was gone for two weeks and they took care of themselves and that farm – just 9 and 11. Every morning on their way to school they’d bring their cows to pasture in a neighbour’s field and water them there before continuing on their way. And after school they’d pick up the cows and walk home and my grandma’s older sister would milk them, and my grandma would gather eggs and tend to their little garden and start supper on a wood stove. My grandmother has a lot of stories from that year when her father was gone. It was a period of her life marked deeply by unsettledness. “Weren’t you scared,” I asked her, “all by yourselves?” “Scared?” she said, “we weren’t scared; we knew what to do.” I have found myself thinking of this story when I’m in the middle of my own unsettled times when I don’t know if everything is going to be okay; when I am uncertain with wondering what will happen. It’s comforting to remember that my grandma managed to run a farm as a nine-year-old; I come from hardy and resilient people.
Yes, but how many of us actually turn to the stories in the Bible for courage and conviction and hope when we’re caught up in the middle of things? The church my family attended last year when we were away – First Congregational Church of Pasadena, United Church of Christ – had a small membership and no consistent youth group so my oldest would sit with us through the service. When he’d get a little bored he’d start leafing through the Bibles that were tucked into the little holders on the backs of the pews, just the same as ours are here. He liked to goad me by pointing at some of the interesting content. He’d open his eyes wide and stare at me, point down at the book, and then look up again at me wide-eyed and surprised. He’d point and elbow me – “When Adam was a hundred and thirty years old he became the father of a son.” “In all Noah’s life lasted nine hundred and fifty years,” he’d nudge me again, incredulous.
And yet the earliest statement of faith produced by the United Church of Canada call the stories of scripture “a faithful record of God’s gracious revelations.” In 1940 we wrote that “the theme of all Holy Scripture is the redemptive purpose and working of God.” In our most recent statement of faith we called Scripture our “song for the journey, the living word, passed on from generation to generation.” “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us…the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand…and [God] brought us to this place…a land flowing with milk and honey.” What is compelling to me about the stories in our Scriptures is that it is always the people who are least likely who are celebrating God’s presence and care – the oppressed, the barren, the wandering, the exile, the outcast, the sick, the poor – people caught up in the middle of things who know that, despite present circumstances, they are a part of a grander narrative, God’s story for humanity. They know God’s trajectory for humankind; they know God accompanies, God preserves, and that God’s love and justice govern all of creation.
On Ash Wednesday I was riding my bike to work along Bloor St. and saw outside the Church of the Redeemer at the corner of Bloor and Avenue Road the priests of that Parish with vials of ashes ready to administer to any who wanted to mark the day. I won’t stop, I thought, I’m too busy, I have too much to get to, and really, what good would it really do? But a nagging at my heart poked at me and I ended up turning my bike around and riding back. I hadn’t anticipated expected it to happen but I started crying, but I started blubbering as I stood in front of the priest, “I’m so sorry,” I blurted, “it’s just, I’m in the middle of some things and I don’t know how it’s all going to turn out.” I was standing there, a bike helmet over my toque – I don’t know who she thought I was. But she wasn’t alarmed, instead she reminded me of a story from our Scriptures: that we are all just dust and that it’s to dust we shall return, and she took some ashes and marked me with a big, black, cross on the middle of my forehead.
As I rode the rest of the way to the church I was flooded with the memory of another story. It was from the book of Genesis, when God makes humankind. God forms the human from the dust of the ground and breathes into that first human’s nostrils and that human becomes a living being. Dust is God’s fodder for creation, and we believe that God has created, and is creating still. Now I don’t know exactly how my story will unfold or how your story will unfold, or how this church’s story will unfold, but if we are dust, we are the very ingredient of God’s creative artistry. I know this because of the stories in our Scriptures, the same way that the people of Israel knew God was with them in exile and wilderness because God had been with them in exile and wilderness before – “My father was a wandering Aramean…[but God] has brought us to this place.” We may still be in the middle of the story, but we know God’s trajectory – life in all its fullness and our happiness always. God has brought us to this place – and God is with us still.