Sunday, February 17, 2013

word for Word--a sermon for Lent 1C

Rev. Teri Peterson
word for Word 
Deuteronomy 26.1-11, Luke 4.1-13 17
February 2013, Lent 1C (Rooted in Love, Growing in Faith 1)

When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, ‘Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.’ When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: ‘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.’ You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” ’ Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written,
“Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”’ Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you,
to protect you”,
“On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”’ When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

Our culture is something of a conundrum. On the one hand, we are people obsessed with our roots—nearly half of American adults research their genealogy for fun. We want to know who we are, so we look at where we came from. And on the other hand, we are people obsessed with insisting that we got where we are on our own merit—we worked hard and pursued our dreams and here we are, never mind the people who came before us paving the way.

Of course, we’re not the first people to live this paradox. Thousands of years ago, people were being encouraged to remember their story. That section of Deuteronomy is an instruction for the future—when you enter the land, and when the land produces fruit, don’t forget how you got here. Don’t forget that you do not cause plants to grow, and you did not bring yourself here—reach to your roots, to your story as a part of God’s people. Remember.

Of course, remembering the story will mean telling it frequently. Deuteronomy 6 tells us to read it when we are alone and teach it to our children and share it in community. Because without the constant reminder of God’s story, without always reaching to our roots, we are in danger of thinking we did this under our own power and intellect. We are in danger of forgetting God, leaving the story on the shelf to gather dust, only pulling the book down to add names or dates to the front page but never venturing into the words that cry out for our attention.

Lent's bulletin cover,
drawn by one of the youth
This Lent we are exploring what it means to be Rooted in Love and Growing in Faith. Just as a tree puts down roots, reaching deep into the earth looking for nutrients and water and something to hold on to, how do we reach deep and get our lives rooted in God’s love? Without a strong root system, a tree cannot grow, it cannot produce fruit, it cannot reach out into the world, it cannot withstand a storm. Trees grow both down and up at the same time—and the growth we see is dependent on growth we cannot see. The same is true of us—we cannot grow in faith if our roots are reaching into deficient soil. We cannot withstand the storms of life if our roots are shallow. We cannot produce fruit if our roots don’t reach to the water source. Sometimes we have to tend to the life others cannot see so that the visible life we lead can be a witness to God’s goodness and grace.

So where do our roots go? How do we deepen them? There are lots of choices in our world—we can be rooted in our jobs, our desires, our friendships, our possessions. But the soil that gives growth is made up mostly of the word of God. Putting our roots down deep into God’s word is the surest way to find nourishment—even Jesus’ quick quote today reminds us that God’s word is better than bread. That means, frankly, we need to read scripture—to get beyond our vague Sunday School memories and our favorite few verses and dig deep. Yes, sometimes it’s boring and full of names we can’t pronounce. Of course, every novel I’ve read also has new names and the occasional slow bit that sets the scene—each writer takes us into a new world with new characters and new perspectives. What would happen if we read Scripture that way, expecting a great story? After all, this library has romance, mystery, action, war stories, intrigue, poetry, letters between pen pals, and sibling rivalry that puts to shame the fights between my brother and me. What would happen if we committed to asking the Spirit to open the word to us, and then we actually read it and let it become a part of us?

Because that’s what we’re talking about here—not only a cursory read, but the kind of reading where you get caught up in the story and wonder what it would be like to be in it, the kind where you’re sad when the book ends. This story may end on paper, but God’s story is nowhere near over. God is still writing this great narrative and calling us to be a part of it. But that means we have to know what God’s been up to before.

This scene of Jesus and the Tempter is a great example. Jesus knows his scripture—he’s ready with a quote or a pithy saying at any moment. But this isn’t just any moment. This is a hungry, sunburned, lonely, tired, thirsty moment. And yet when the Tempter comes, Jesus is able not only to remember that he is a major part of the God-story, he is also able to call up those key teachings and to interpret them for this time and place. He doesn’t just trade scripture quotes with the Tempter, he interprets God’s written word into a living word for this moment, applying it to his situation. In order to do that, we need more than a passing glance at the scripture—we need to know it, to let it live in us not just as words but as Living Word. Then we too will be able to practice interpreting our lives through the lens of God’s story, knowing that we are part of that story. And when the storm comes, or the tempter shows up, our roots will hold us fast, and they will continue to be conduits through which we are nourished to let God’s light shine in the darkness of the world.

I wonder, if Jesus had been told at age 10 that he needed to remember God’s story, to live in the word and let the word live in him, so that one day he would have the resources to turn it from words on a page to Word of Life…what would he have thought? If 10 year old Jesus had been warned that he might one day be tempted to rely on himself, on his own understanding and skills and power and accomplishment, would he have scoffed? Because I think that’s what happened in Deuteronomy. The people were admonished to remember, to hold on to the word, to rely not on themselves but on God’s goodness…and they forgot about 10 minutes after they arrived in the Promised Land. They forgot to tell the stories, they forgot that they don’t cause rain to fall or crops to grow, they forgot that they’d relied on God for two generations and tried to rely on themselves. I suspect we have done the same, more often than we would like to admit. We have forgotten God’s story, believed we are capable of doing it on our own, relied on our version of events rather than reaching for our roots…or even relied on our biological genealogy rather than the stories of our spiritual ancestors.

Of course, spending time deepening our roots looks to the rest of the world like wasting time. But there is nothing wasteful about nurturing a relationship with God. And if we don’t do it, our tree falls down at the first hint of wind and all the serving we do is more about us than God. There are lots of ways to put down roots, and opening up the Bible is one of them. Now, I’m not entirely suggesting that you grab the closest Bible, lock yourself in your room, and start on page one. That isn’t a terrible idea, but around page 75 or so it’s going to start lagging a bit. It takes some serious fortitude to read from the front cover to the back, and it gets really tempting to skim until we find something familiar or to close the book and say we tried. And if all we do is read without letting the words come to life inside us, we’ll still be missing out.

So here’s a suggestion. We’re Presbyterians, which means that we discern God’s living word in community. What if, this week, we all reach deep together. Sometime this week, read the gospel according to Mark—just 16 short chapters—but read it out loud. Don’t use your special scripture-reading voice, read it like an adventure story. Maybe do it as a family and have kids do sound effects while you read. Or imagine chapter 5 is a movie—how would you stage it on film? Whatever you do, just read it out loud, the way it was meant to be read. The gospels were written to be read out loud in house churches, passed among families and read after dinner or at neighborhood gatherings. Mark especially was designed for the voice, not the eye. Try it out.

And, in addition, try to memorize Psalm 1. It’s a prayer and an affirmation of faith, a deep desire and a warning. Look up words—don’t assume that you know what chaff is or looks like—I just looked it up a few weeks ago and was so surprised! Repeat the words over and over. Write them down using pen and paper. Draw a picture of the psalm. Whatever works to get the words into you, a part of you, so they appear in your thoughts throughout the day, word for Word. Exercise those memory muscles—it’s good for your brain and your spirit.

Hearing the story of Jesus and praying the psalm are a great way for us to enter Lent together, to reach our roots deep and seek nourishment in God’s word, so we can be rooted in love—because when we are rooted in love, we grow in faith.

May it be so.

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