Sermon, March 20

A note about the readings: Today’s Epistle is transferred from next Sunday, March 27 (Lent 4C), because we will not read the Epistle next week due to our Scripture Drama. 

Today’s Old Testament lesson gives us the call of Moses – Israel’s great leader who led them out of bondage in Egypt and through a long wilderness journey. I’m always tickled by God saying, “I have heard my people’s cry, I have come to deliver them, I’m sending … YOU!” And Moses saying, “You have the wrong guy.” 

But this year my attention is caught by this sentence:  “I have come down to deliver [My people] from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey” – so far so good –

“To the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.”

That’s… a whole lot of people to already be living in the land that God plans to give to the Israelites. 

Two weeks ago, on the first Sunday in Lent, we heard a portion of Deuteronomy – a book that presents itself as Moses’ last words to his people before his death and their crossing over into this land, the land they believe God intends as their new home. 

That passage had resonances with our Thanksgiving myth. The people told to honor their first harvest season in this new land that God has given them by making an offering to God, then celebrating with a great feast. 

The only thing missing from the story are helpful native peoples… because the Israelites were supposed to wipe them all out. 

How do we deal with the places where the Bible says that God wants God’s people to destroy other nations? 

I find those texts to be in tension with some really central themes of Scripture – like that when God calls a particular people, be it the the Israelites, later known as the Jews, or the Christians, followers of Jesus, it’s so that they can bless other peoples, not destroy them. 

Both the Bible and archaeology tell us that the Israelites spent a long, long time being one small nation among other nations. There are lots of stories of conflict with neighboring peoples in the Old Testament. 

From that angle it makes some sense that as people compiled texts and traditions into their holy book, some language crept in there about how God definitely wanted them to destroy all those troublesome neighbors. 

There’s more to unpack and wrestle with there.  I don’t want to make it too simple. But there is room to faithfully question whether God has ever called God’s people to commit genocide. 

In March of 1848, a revolution was stirring in what is now Germany. The working classes and middle classes were joining forces against the ruling elites, to call for more democratic government and constitutional reforms protecting the rights of ordinary citizens. 

The revolution was ultimately quashed by military force. Discouraged and fearing reprisals, many young Germans who could afford emigrate, did – to places like Texas, Ohio, and Wisconsin. 

This wave of German immigrants, seeking a fresh start in a more free and democratic nation, became known as the Forty-Eighters. Among them were the Heim family – including two brothers, young men, Joseph and Anton, and Joseph’s fiancée Theresia. Arriving in New York in 1848, the Heims made their way to Wisconsin.

To a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey – the land of the Ho-Chunk, the Sauk, the Menominee, the Ojibwe, the Potawatomi, the Oneida. 

There Joseph, Anton, and Theresia bought some land from the US government, built a home, and started a farm. I’m standing on that land right now. The brick house over there – that’s the home the Heims built. 

Another of those big, overarching themes of Scripture is that God wants people to be free – not in bondage. God seems to care about human wellbeing, human thriving. 

Our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry likes to talk about our loving, liberating, and life-giving God. 

I believe God wanted to free the Israelites from enslavement in Egypt. I believe, too, that God wanted the Heims to be free from the oppressive circumstances they faced at home in Germany. To have a chance to build a better life for themselves and their children. 

And: All these stories of making home in a new place, a place of freedom and plenty: all these stories have to reckon with who was displaced or killed, to free up the “promised land” for those new arrivals. 

We have to read against the grain of these received stories to notice those losses, those costs. It is work. Because these powerful myths of journey and arrival and home-making – they either demonize the people who were there already, or ignore them entirely. 

From the mid-15th century to the present, the legal principle of the Doctrine of Discovery has asserted that Christian,“civilized” Europeans had the right to any territory occupied by non-Christian peoples. The native peoples of the Americas, of Australia, of Africa – their millennia of presence and stewardship of the land simply didn’t matter. 

The United States government did negotiate many treaties with Native peoples – including the 1832 treaty that forced the Ho-Chunk nation to leave this land. 

Those treaties give the appearance of taking Native land rights seriously – but they were also overwhelmingly unfair and coercive, and usually made in bad faith on the American side. And the fundamental mindset was that land wasn’t truly owned, truly used, until white people were living and farming on it. 

It’s work to learn about all this, to take it on board. It’s hard and uncomfortable. 

And if Paul’s right that being followers of Jesus means being ambassadors of reconciliation – it’s part of our call to faithful living. 

Reconciliation. The Greek word Paul used is katalasso. It was most literally a word for exchanging money between currencies, making sure the values came out even.

We still use the word “reconcile” in financial contexts:  to reconcile accounts means you compare them, explain any differences, and get them to match up.

But in Greek and in English, we also use this word for relationships. For coming back together, working through differences, finding resolution and, perhaps, a shared way forward. 

These are timely words and ideas for this season. Reconciliation and repentance. Acknowledging harm, making amends. Mending… 

The financial meaning of “reconciliation” feels oddly apt for the learning some of us have been doing, through our parish Land Acknowledgement Task Force and other opportunities. 

We are, indeed, comparing accounts: the account of the history of this place that begins with people like the Heims claiming and taming the wilderness, and the account that begins much earlier, with the deep memories of peoples who stewarded this land for centuries or millennia. 

Comparing these accounts, seeking to understanding the differences between them – that’s the work that led us, as a first step, to commit $3000 of our 2022 parish budget as an offering to the Native peoples of this region.

Today’s Gospel is a complicated little passage. Some people want to know what Jesus thinks of this recent news story – a tragedy, an abomination, a war crime. He responds, then shares a short parable. 

On the surface, the teaching and the story seem like a mismatch: Tragedies don’t happen to people because they’re extra sinful, BUT: if you don’t start bearing fruit, you’re gonna get chopped! … 

Let me offer a paraphrase that I think holds the pieces together better. Jesus says, Look, those people didn’t have it coming, any more than anybody else ever has it coming. Get that way of thinking out of your head. That’s not how things work.

Everyone is bound by sin. And death is coming for us all, eventually, one way or another. The question is: what will you do with the time you have? 

It’s very easy for us to read this Gospel text in terms of consequences – of punishment. The tower falls, the tree gets chopped down: bad things will happen… unless, maybe…! 

But I truly believe that what Jesus wants from us, and for us, is very different from dread and the kind of rigid and fearful righteousness that grows from fear of punishment. Rather, Jesus invites us to take an unflinching look at the brevity and uncertainty of life – and asks us: 

In a world where a random building might fall on you at any time, where you never know if this may be your last fruitful year: How will you live? What do you choose? 

May God bless us to be a blessing.

May God give us the fertilizer we need to bear fruit. 

May God strengthen us, each and all, to be ambassadors of reconciliation – to have skill and courage and hope for the work of mending, in its many shapes and sizes. 

May we find that work – however it manifests for us, each and all –  to be both our duty and our joy. Amen.