First Fruits by Rev. Lauren Wright Pittman Inspired by Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Digital painting

Deuteronomy 26:1-11;Luke 4:1-13

Last week, we talked about a lifehack about reading the Bible; if a story takes place in or around a mountaintop, it is about encountering God. Here’s another one; if a story takes place in a wilderness or desert, it represents deprivation, spiritual loss or wandering from God in some way. The 40 years in the wilderness that the Israelites spend in the wilderness is probably the prime example of it, but we find it throughout the Old and New Testament. From Genesis to Exodus, the story of Jonah and the story of Jesus.


But inside every wilderness encounter, which we associate so closely with material loss, with want, with hunger, there are also signs of God’s incredible gifts, invitations into living authentically, expansively, and abundantly. Even in our times of greatest despair, God is there to provide us not with what we want, but what we need, not just some, but more than we can imagine.


Pastor Shane, we might think, why are we talking about god’s abundance and graciousness during Lent?


What comes to mind when we talk about Lent? Perhaps some sort of personal discipline, giving up something like chocolate or alcohol or social media. If you’re a Roman Catholic from a certain generation, it might be no meat on Fridays. Or even a practice of fasting in general.

There’s also typically a focus on human sin, introspection, of spiritual preparation.

That’s certainly one way to approach this season, one sort of traditional way to approach it.

But if we take a step back, and look at it in the context of our faith, this way of seeing lent certainly isn’t the only way, and indeed, might not be the best way.


If there’s one thing that we’ve learned over the past few years, it’s that God’s love and grace are not things we can prepare for. We can’t bottle, and put up for sale love or make grace fit into a mold for mass production to pick up at our convenience.


That’s because God has a habit of taking us by surprise, by becoming most apparent when we least expect it.


In other words, how dare we believe that giving up chocolate for Lent will prepare us to see God more clearly, to be loved more dearly.


What hubris must we have to believe that we can truly be more ready to receive the irrational Good News of Easter Sunday through not eating meat on Fridays.


Professor Mark Douglas of Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur Georgia, has this to say:

“I simply can’t make theological sense of the claim that any of us can do anything to prepare ourselves for the arrival of such grace on Easter Sunday. . . . Easter is a shock of divine goodness that reveals not the evidence of our worth or the magnitude of our efforts, but God’s astounding power, to which we can but whisper ‘Thank you,’ not ‘Okay: now I’m ready.’ Whatever work we do at learning to discipline our bodies and our lives, we do in response to God’s grace, not in preparation for it. But there, again this response—this disciplining—isn’t a seasonal exercise; it’s a lifelong one.”


So instead this Lenten season, we’re going to be recognizing abundance and striving not to become more ready to receive God’s love, but to strive instead for lives that are full. Lives that are full of the things that truly matter: hope, courage, joy, honesty, and grace.

So in that mindset, how might we approach our readings today?


Our first reading comes from the book of Deuteronomy, a condensed retelling of the story of Moses and the Hebrew people. This particular piece takes place in the desert, but talks about their future, full of hope and promise in that land of milk and honey. They have only recently escaped slavery, and are actively in the process of building the foundations for what we might anachronistically call a national identity.


The 12 tribes aren’t really all that united; the book of Exodus calls them a “mixed multitude.” Indeed, the very word Hebrew may even be related to the ancient word Habiru, which means dusty or dirty, and referred to outlaws, rebels, or laborers; the outcast, leftover, and the downtrodden.


Our translation refers to a wandering Aramean as the ancestor of the Hebrew people. But there’s another way to translate it that might be more meaningful to our modern ears. “A Syrian refugee” was my ancestor. Because the ancient Aramean people were from what is today Syria, and there are multiple meanings to that word translated here as wandering; one of which is refugee.


Even in the midst of the wandering of the desert, the people of God, not only those who are related by blood but also the aliens who reside among you- are called upon to remember their past, devote themselves to love of God and be bound together in bounty and abundance. In the midst of their wandering, they are called to gratitude for milk and honey. God will provide for the people, even in their troubled times, especially if they remember and embrace their authentic and real histories and identities and come together in solidarity for one another.


Our Gospel reading is the famous 40 days in the wilderness, the temptation of Christ by the devil. Here, Jesus is tempted in three different ways- to turn stone into bread, to receive glory and authority in exchange for subordination to the devil, and then to use his power in a showy display that would accomplish nothing but self-aggrandizement. All three of these temptations are fundamentally about power and the temptations it provides.


Yet Jesus is able to move beyond the temptation of power as a tool to dominate and rule and instead toward a posture of humility, toward the way of God’s love. He is able to endure because Jesus embodies God’s love for us, and is a model for how we should love.


This is not the fickle and naive love of Romeo and Juliet, but a mature love that knows who it is and whose it is. Because of this grounding, it is a love that does not flinch in the hard times, that endures, and is perhaps the last thing to survive. When all of our wealth has decayed, when we have lost all of our Instagram followers and facebook friends, when even our bodies start to fail us, our love, and God’s love for us, remains.


For that, we must give our thanks and praise.

Amen.



Psalm 99; Luke 9:28-36, (37-43a)

I don’t know if I believe in demons; but after weeks like this one I’m willing to reconsider.

Between the “Don’t Say Gay” bill making its way through the Florida House, the declaration of the Texas government that gender affirming care for transgender children is child abuse, and can get children taken away from their parents, and of course, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there’s a lot going on that is evil and well, demonic.


Yes, evil. It’s a harsh word, one I don’t, we don’t like to use, but at times we must. I try not to call specific people evil, but rather behavior and systems- as I noted last week, no one is 100% a victim, villain, or a hero, and it was just last week that Jesus told us to judge, lest ye be judged, and well, I know that I often come up lacking. But my behavior? The systems of evil that I participate in, either God forbid willingly or much more likely unwillingly- yeah, I have a feeling those should be judged. If they are found wanting, they should be changed.


And as for the word demonic, even if there aren’t little imps with pitchfork, it’s hard not to use this word when we see what causes formerly good kids to do monstrous things. Let us remember that all the evil in world is caused by people who were once good kids. What possesses someone to target LGBTQ kids for political gain? These are kids who are already under great stress and pressure, trying to discern who they really are. Yet when politicians in Texas saw that, their response is to call any work that helps those kids out child abuse, and threaten to steal those children away from their parents.


What possesses a man not just to go to war, but to order one, to willingly and knowingly send thousands of young people to die?


Perhaps the best word for those forces that willingly cause such misery is demonic. Just as Jesus fought them, so too must we. That Jesus and the disciples almost immediately encounter these forces so soon after connecting with their history, of experiencing a transcendent glimpse of the glory of God, of a vision hope and future that awaits them and us is no mistake. Indeed, perhaps it is one of the great reasons that we worship together; to connect to our history, to catch a glimpse of God, to prepare ourselves in the fight against the evils of this world.

As we begin to talk about our Bible readings, a quick tip, a lifehack, as the kids say these days. If a story is set on a mountaintop, people are likely to encounter God. We see this in both of our readings, with Moses encountering God and the transfiguration.


Our first reading is the story Moses encountering God and, having received the Ten Commandments, giving them to the people.


When he comes back down the mountain, his face shines, having been in the presence of God for forty days and forty nights. It shines so much that he has to cover his face because the people are so afraid of him. If this seems a bit foreign, another way to think of it; have you ever seen someone who just seems to glow? Someone who just had an amazing spiritual or natural experience and just well, glows? Same thing, perhaps not as vibrant or flashy, but same principle. Yet we also know that those experiences are experiences; they never last forever.

It’s telling that after Moses has transcendent experiences with God, the real world is waiting for him back down the mountain. Before this forty day experience on the mountaintop, he previously spent a week on the mountaintop, but was called back down when the people started worshipping a Golden calf. This time, he has to organize the craftsmen who are building the tabernacle which would eventually house the Ten Commandments, which we know better as the Ark of the Covenant.


Anyone who’s organized construction projects with multiple trades involved knows how difficult that can be. From my count this project involves leatherworkers, sewers, carpenters, blacksmiths, silver and goldsmiths, so even though it’s not a campaign there is quite a bit of engineering, planning, budgeting, and building involved. As the saying goes, “everyone wants to save the world, no one wants to do the dishes”- Although I happen to know a few exceptions.

But we can see the connection to our gospel reading, the story of the transfiguration; James, Peter, John, and Jesus go on a leadership prayer retreat, I guess is the best way to put it, to the top of a local mountain. While there, Jesus transforms, his clothes become dazzling white, and he’s talking with two of the great prophets of Israel: Moses and Elijah. This is all a little hazy; almost dreamlike- Peter, James, and John are all very tired- perhaps in a half-asleep half-awake state.


In being there, Moses, Elijah and Jesus represent the continuity of past, present and future. Moses is the liberator and law giver, who led his people into freedom from slavery, and Elijah the resistor, who turned against a regime that had turned the force of its power towards cruelty and oppression. These are not only religious prophets, but also folk heroes for a Jewish people suffering under the brutality of Roman occupation. They would have been as much Abraham Lincoln as Joan of Arc for James, Peter, and John.


Peter is so dazzled that he starts to babble, about making sukkot, booths, for the three of them. His rambling is apparently a signal that it’s time for the God squad to leave, and so a cloud envelops them and out of it a voice booms, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” It’s a very 10 commandments esque scene- Almost melodramatic.


But I think the most important part of this scene isn’t necessarily the transformation that they see in Jesus or must have felt within themselves, although those things are important. It’s in the extra part of the reading that I read out loud. When they come down from the mountain, the “real world” is waiting right there for them.


There’s a boy who is possessed by an evil spirit; one apparently even Jesus’ followers are unable to get rid of. However you want to interpret Jesus’ interactions with these spirits- either as a political metaphor; remembering that Jesus literally met one named Legion, after the Roman Legions, as some sort of healing in a prescientific era that didn’t understand psychosis and disease, or as evil spirits- this was a major part of Jesus’ work.

When Jesus does his ministry work, it’s a combination of teaching, healing, and casting out spirits, side by side. Jesus’ frustrations with them are plain in our reading, and they are manifestations in one way or another of the evil present in the world, and one of Jesus’ duties is to fight it where he finds it. Thus it becomes our duty too. To name and cast out the demonic forces of homophobia, militarism, greed, wrath, and hatred.


Yet even Jesus does not do this work non-stop; we have several instances of Jesus resting, praying, and spending time alone to pray and meditate, sometimes leaving the disciples rather abruptly to do so. The work is hard, and we must be spiritually and emotionally prepared for it. It is not that we have to do it all, but we do need all of us to do some.


I hope that worship here at the church transforms and recharges us. I hope it allows us to see the face of God, to connect our past with liberation and hope for the future. Because in a world where evil exists, our work is needed. Whether its small or big, across town or across the world, our help, as individuals and as a collective is crucial.


May God be with us, and with all those fighting for their freedom to exist, to live in peace. Let us take a moment of silent prayer and meditation.


Amen.

Genesis 45:3-11, 15 (NRSV); Luke 6:27-38 (The Voice)


Cecilia Castell, "Unity is my Community"


There are few types of drama more painful and intense than family drama.

Maybe it’s the intensity of the emotions, the emotional and physical proximity of those involved. Perhaps there’s so much history, most of which never really gets resolved, that we can’t help but bring those into our present conflicts.

As my brother asks whenever we argue, “Why are you always bringing up old stuff?”

Why are we always bringing up the old stuff? Why do we hang onto the past, sometimes even clinging to it, refusing to let it go?

William Faulkner would tell us that it’s because “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Faulkner was probably right; the past forms the habits and patterns of relationships that guide how we deal with each other in the present. The deepest patterns, the pathways that have been cut the deepest, are in our family systems.

Sometimes these patterns are good and bear fruits of love. But in many families, there are patterns that need to be broken. There might be patterns of cruelty, forced and unhealthy competition, or a mindset that love is something to be hoarded or only shown sparingly. Sometimes these patterns are so deeply dug, the ruts on the path so deeply dug that getting out of them seems insurmountable.

But there is good news.

We can break those patterns; we can create new ways of being with each other that are based on mercy instead of cruelty, cooperation instead of competition, and abundant and overwhelming love instead of a mindset of scarcity. We can show the world that retaliation does not restore.

These changes are often phenomenally difficult; they take courage, compassion, and often a ton of support, and often therapy. Furthermore, these changes don’t involve fixing other people, but by the grace of God, fixing ourselves. Change in families happens when we correct our own destructive and retaliatory patterns of behavior. Doing this is not an easy fix, and perhaps not even a fix at all. Because breaking those patterns, doing the things that Jesus talks about in our gospel reading don’t fix other people, at least directly.

Loving your enemies won’t make those that hurt you treat you right or love you more. Becoming a better person than a bully won’t directly stop them from being a bully. That’s because one of the ultimate truths I have learned is that we can’t fix other people. Change is ultimately between a person and God.

What it can do- what we can do- is to demonstrate that new ways of being in the world are possible. Patterns of abuse are not our destiny.

Our first bible story today is a perfect illustration of this; It’s the story of Joseph, he of the amazing technicolor dream coat.

A Sunday School refresher on Joseph; he’s the beloved son of Jacob and Rachel. He was the golden child, beloved by his father. But he was also a bit roguish, a charmer, perhaps a bit over confident.

Joseph is the perfect example of something I learned while at my NGLI leadership conference earlier this year which has been incredibly helpful for me: No one, nor any group of people, is 100% a hero, a victim, or a villain. To assign someone completely to that category takes away their humanity, their sense of agency, and reduce them to an object in a morality play. All those categories really do is make us feel better about liking or hating someone.

Joseph is often a jerk to his half-brothers; not enough to justify them selling him into slavery in Egypt, but once again, not completely innocent.

Joseph, after some setbacks, is able to rise in the court of the pharaoh to becoming the prime minister, and he’s known especially for interpreting prophetic dreams. Most immediate to our concern is the one that the pharaoh has that ends up being about a famine.

Joseph encourages the pharaoh to stock up on grain, which saves the people of Egypt from starvation.

Two years into the famine, Joseph’s brothers show up to the palace, asking for shelter.

Some shenanigans ensue; Joseph never stops being crafty or having that trickster element to him, instead its used to figure out the intentions of his brothers, to see if they have changed and if so, how much.

Our scene, our reading today is the climax of these interactions, and perhaps of Joseph’s life.

Joseph faces down his brothers, who had acted with unspeakable cruelty so long ago, and reveals himself to them, and in doing so, forgives them.

We can tell that this is not an easy thing for Joseph nor is it immediate. This is something that Joseph had to work through. This scene doesn’t happen immediately.

I must note here that Joseph is in the position of power here; his brothers are not in a position to abuse him further. I do not want my words to be interpreted as giving free reign to abuse; that is not my intent.

Indeed, I believe Jesus wants us to excise our abusive relationships; eliminating the leverage points they can use to dominate us. Why else give a shirt along with a cloak? Jesus does not call on us to repair our abusers, to heal them, or even continue to work, or tolerate their abuse. Forgiveness is not for the benefit of the abuser. It is a tool for healing the abused, for moving and growing beyond our pain and trauma.

We hear this process of healing in Joseph’s words, the words of someone who is trying to heal from his trauma, trying to, assure himself that this is the right thing to do, that he should not continue the easy and usual pattern of cruelty, enslaving his brothers as he had been enslaved.

And he does it.

He ensures that the pattern which has destroyed his life would be ended with him.

This is a miracle as much as any prophetic dream; the ending of cycles of violence.

We cannot but imagine the nights that Joseph spent toiling as a slave or in prison, cursing his brothers in the depths of his heart, imagining what his life would have been like if they had acted differently, dreaming of the kindness his brothers could have showed him.

This is a living example of Jesus’ teaching in our gospel reading, which contains that Golden Rule, in our translation rendered as “Think of the kindness you wish others would show you; do the same for them.”

Joseph is able to imagine a new way of being a family together, not with love being dribbled out in small measure, but love that is abundant.

He does not portion out kindness and mercy in drips and drops. Joseph could have given them some grain and sent them on their way and been perfectly within his rights. But this is Joseph the dreamer. Instead, he gives them a sizable territory beyond anything they could have needed, or would have been politically useful for him. This is extravagant love; overflowing love and abundant.

One of my favorite lines in this translation of the gospel message, and the reason that I chose it instead of the more traditional NRSV, is that Jesus asks us not just to love our enemies, but to do good without restraint, to lend with abandon and not expect anything in return. There’s an extravagance of giving that we are called to as a reflection of God’s love for and to us.

Friends, Neighbors, children of God, the story of Joseph and this gospel remind us that we are called to mercy, to justice, to love in extravagant and abundant ways, reflecting God’s love for us. If we are to err in the ways we love, let them be errors of loving too much, not too little.

Don’t get me wrong, this is hard work. This is soul searching and gut wrenching work that we have to do, to identify and correct the patterns in our lives that do not lead us toward God. But it is the work we are called to do. Work we must do, for we are bound together, surely as Joseph and his brothers.

Amen.