A wandering Aramean was my father; and he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. Then we cried to the LORD the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice, and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression; and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror, with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which thou, O LORD, hast given me. (Deut 26:5-10)
A wandering Aramean was my father.
A certain fascination prevails these days with genetic antecedents and genealogical research. It’s a fascination that, I have to admit, mostly eludes me. When I go to Ireland and they hear my name, they tell me it’s so common I could be from anywhere. Little do they know that I am more Slovak than Irish, but I remain satisfied that my parents did not name me after my maternal grandfather, Andrishku.
It may seem strange to begin Lent with talk of family trees. But you can read the account of Jesus’ temptation in the desert as a paternity test administered by the devil, who begins it all by challenging, “if you are the Son of God.” So it seems like safe ground to tread.
You might wonder why on a day like today we don’t hear the story of the Fall in the Garden of Eden - of that first trespass that turned the faucet on and left it running. If it was the church’s intention to ask us to wallow in our sins all day long, and rub our noses in it, then such a reading might be a good idea. But contrary to much conventional wisdom, the church’s best and true intention is not to berate us about our sins (not even on the first Sunday in Lent) but to show us the way of hope.
From where we are, she could have followed a number of breadcrumb trails back in time. One of them would have led to a rainbow. But the trail she follows traces a line back to Abraham, who was called by God to leave everything behind and go where he was led, with the promise that God would make of him a great nation. Then Abraham’s faith was tested, when he was commanded to do the unthinkable and sacrifice his Son, Isaac. Abraham passed the test. Isaac lived, and he begat two sons Esau and Jacob. Their complicated relationship is a story for another day. Isaac bestowed his blessing on his son Jacob, saying, “May God almighty bless you and make you fruitful... that you may take possession of the land where you now live as an alien - land that God gave to Abraham.” And Jacob dreamed of God’s blessing, and of heaven, and eventually he wrestled with God, and God gave Jacob a new name: he called him Israel. Israel then carried the blessing of his father Isaac, who carried the blessing of his father Abraham, who had entered into a covenant with God, that God would give to Abraham and his descendants all the land from “the river of Egypt to the... river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kennizites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.”
Record keeping, topographical maps, and geological surveys being what they were in those days, the specificity of the real estate was what you might call imprecise, despite the apparent detail.
By the time Moses led the children of Israel through the desert, the lands of the Kennites, the Kennizites, the Kadmonites, the Rephaim, and the Girgashites, had already dropped off the list. But a new designation appeared that had not been included with the description provided to Abraham. The land to which God’s children were being led by Moses was now said to be a land flowing with milk and honey (Ex 13).
I contend that the precise address, coordinates, and exact location of the real estate in question had already begun to matter less than the nature of the landscape. And what’s so important about the landscape isn’t so much its ability to support either cows or bees, but rather, the view. And what’s so important about the view is that it originates in God’s eyes, not ours; it’s a matter of God’s vision, not ours; it’s a question of God’s promise, which becomes our hope. (I mean, that is, if you allow for the possibility that when Moses was speaking to the children of Israel in ancient times, he was also speaking to Episcopalians in the 21st century - which I do!)
A wandering Aramean was my father...
How can 21st century Episcopalians read these words aloud with a straight face? How can we claim any share of the ancestral heritage of our Jewish forebears? How can we dream about the land from the river of Egypt to the... river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kennizites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites? And what about the view of a land that’s flowing with milk and honey?
Christians can never rightfully be settlers on land that belongs to others. Certainly, we could never rightfully lay claim to New Jersey, let alone the land between the Wadi El-Arish and the Euphrates. But we do not have to give up on the view that looks out onto a land flowing with milk and honey. It is to such a vision that God is calling us today. Our bondage was never the bondage of slavery in Egypt, but our sins, our selfishness, and the ways we have turned way from God - all these have treated us harshly, our sins have afflicted us, our trespasses and our selfishness have laid upon us hard bondage that we sometimes feel we cannot escape.
But we might still cry to the Lord, the God of our fathers, when we realize what has become of us. And the LORD will hear our voice. He sees our affliction and our oppression. And he is still able to deliver us with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, to bring us into a land, so to speak, flowing with milk and honey.
For in that land God’s will will be done on earth as it is in heaven. In that land, God’s reign will be established. In that land God’s justice will prevail. In that land, God’s hope will be proclaimed to the poor, the forgotten, the dispossessed, the alien, and the lost. In that land the injuries of this life will be mended, illnesses healed, memories restored, relationships reconciled. In that land our selfishness will be subjugated by God’s bounty. In that land God’s peace will prevail upon us, so that we can at last beat our swords into plowshares. In that land light shines in the darkness, and death is conquered by the power of divine life. That is what is meant by a land that is a land flowing with milk and honey. And it is our Promised Land. We don’t need to bother about the precise address, the coordinates, and the exact location of the real estate in question, since all that matters far less than the nature of the landscape, and far less than the view.
Like so many journeys, Lent begins with a reminder of where we have come from, precisely so we can reassure ourselves of where we are going. Why else bother unburdening ourselves of all the extra baggage of our past, of our sins? If we don’t have someplace else to go? If God is not calling us to something better, something holier, something everlasting? Why bother at all, if milk and honey don’t flow freely where we are going?
The call to repentance is a call to turn around. And when we do, we can look back and remember where we came from, we remember who we are, and we remember where we were going.
A wandering Aramean was our father, and he went down into a strange land and sojourned there, few in number; and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. But our sins have treated us harshly, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. Then we cried to the LORD the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice, and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression; and the LORD brought us out of our misery with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror, with signs and wonders; and he is bringing us into a new place, which is no place, really, and he is giving us this land, which has no precise address, no coordinates, and no exact location. But it is a land flowing with milk and honey: the milk of God’s love, and the honey of his mercy, which is to say that it is a land with an expansive view of hope.
A wandering Aramean was our father. And we remember who we are, where we came from, and where we are going.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
10 March 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia