Written by Pastor Ed
Remembering the Story
Feb. 14, 2016 – Lent 1
Deut. 26: 1-11 and Luke 4: 1-13
Several years ago I gave the opening for the Mennonite Historical Society of Alberta meeting here and began with a take-off of the Deuteronomy passage.
A wandering Anabaptist/Amishman was my ancestor who traveled from the Canton of Bern in Switzerland to the Alsace region of Germany and finally in 1737 migrated to the US and settled in eastern Pennsylvania. From there my ancestors moved westward to western Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana and now can be found scattered across North America as well as numerous other places around the world.
While this isn’t that earliest ancestor, it is the earliest one I have a picture of, from the mid-1800s. As you probably know, I enjoy genealogy and am often intrigued by the stories both that are told, as well as many that are only hinted at but which will never be told. Just recently Ervin Stutzman, Executive Director of Mennonite Church USA, published several historical novels about an Indian attack on the Hostetler family in Pennsylvania that has been a well-known story among their descendants, of whom both he and I are. There is a third book coming to finish the series.
One of the privileges and joys of my role as pastor is that I get to hear people’s stories, hopefully from the people themselves, but then also other stories that are often told at someone’s death. A number of you have shared your stories at the Seniors’ luncheons and those have been inspiring. Telling stories is an important part of our life together. I found it interesting that the quote on the front of the bulletin was attributed both to Plato as well as to a Native American proverb. I don’t know which attribution is correct.
As we enter this Lenten season our focus will be on telling the story, both the Biblical story as well as our own stories, and the connections between the two. For in many ways our stories are simply a continuation of the story that begins in Genesis and continues on through history. Of course we all tell the story from our own perspective, which isn’t always the most objective. Someone recently posted a Mennonite View of World History, which while meant to be humorous, unfortunately has a fair bit of truth to it.
Remembering our story is important for many reasons, but is particularly important at certain times in our lives or in the life of the community. Such is the case with the two stories we read this morning.
The setting for Deuteronomy 26 is instructions to the children of Israel as they are about to end their wilderness wanderings and enter the promised land. Finally they were going to be able to settle down and receive the promises that God had made to Abraham and to Moses. They had been promised abundance, a land flowing with milk and honey. And they had also been instructed to bring a tithe of their first-fruits to the altar to present it to the priest.
And in those instructions, as we read, they are told to recite their history, the story of their ancestors.
“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. 6 When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, 7 we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. 8 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; 9 and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.
That is, when you are rejoicing in the abundance of your life now, remember where you have come from and who it is that has brought you to this place. All of us have a history and it is good to remember that we have not gotten to where we are today without those who have gone before, whether that is for good or for ill. It seems like over the past several years, congregations I pastored previously have been celebrating anniversaries, and it is always interesting to see what they remember in their histories and what they tend to leave out. In the 175 year history of the Shantz Mennonite Church in Ontario that we attended in October, they often leave out one entire pastorate, because he was silenced by the conference for going bankrupt.
In some ways that’s natural, and one could say the same thing about this recital in Deuteronomy, it doesn’t mention all the times the children of Israel doubted or disobeyed. But its purpose is first and foremost to remind the people that God had brought them to this place, and certainly in making this recitation, they would be reminded that God did this, in spite of their complaints. Their offerings now were a response to God’s goodness to them in bringing them to their current situation, acknowledging God in their story.
Just as the children of Israel were about to enter a new phase in their history, Jesus was about to enter into a new phase in his ministry in the account we read from Luke 4. He has just been publically recognized by John the Baptist, and made an affirmation of his faith by being baptized. And now he withdraws, or is led, into the wilderness to decide how he should carry out this public phase of his ministry.
The temptations he faced all are options for how to make friends and influence people, both in his day and in ours. He could be the great provider, sort of a Santa Claus figure passing out goodies to everyone. He could seize political power and rule using the power of the nations, or he could be a miracle worker, wowing people with his feats of daring.
And in each case Jesus resisted the temptation because he knew the story. Now some might say, “well he was Jesus so obviously he could resist.” But if we believe that Jesus was truly human, as we do, then we have to believe that the temptations were real ones and he had to choose whether to follow the way of God, as taught in the Torah, his scriptures, or to follow the way of the devil, the way most of the world would choose.
But in order to know the ways of God, you have to know the stories of God and the lessons of the scripture and of history. Without knowing those stories and that history, we become adrift with no compass to guide us. Of course it’s also important what story and history we choose to listen to and learn from, for each story comes from a perspective.
When I spent time among the Northern Cheyenne in Montana I learned that the story of the Little Bighorn, often called Custer’s Last Stand, is very different when told from the Cheyenne point of view than what I learned growing up in school. Yesterday I mentioned a book I am reading called The Great Controversy between Christ and Satan, a book published in 1907, which is a history of the church from the 1st century until about 1900, but with a decidedly anti-Catholic bent.
So we do need to be aware of what stories we listen to as normative. For us, as for Jesus, one of those normative stories, or perhaps we should say The normative story, is the scriptures which tell the story of God’s dealing with God’s people through the centuries. And it’s important for us to know those stories and to pass them along from generation to generation. It’s why we have Sunday School and VBS and Bible story books, and so forth. But of course, as adults we need to also know the story in order to pass it along.
In both of the stories of this morning one of the principle acknowledgements is that God is the primary author of the story, a story which began with the call of Abram and continues through God’s people to the present day. Marked with lots of tangents, divisions, and disobedience, it is still the story of God’s faithfulness throughout the generations. So the question becomes, how do you and I acknowledge God in our story? In what ways has God been present, particularly in those times of decision or new beginnings, helping to choose the right path?
Each Sunday during Lent there will be a time for some kind of response, which will take various forms. Today, in your bulletin you will find an insert, mostly blank with the question, “How do you acknowledge God as the Author of your story? And we’re going to take some time for you to ponder that and write your response. And then, if you want, you don’t need to, but if you want, you can place those in the offering basket when it come around and we’ll post them on a bulletin board somewhere. You needn’t sign your name, again unless you want to.
I invite you to consider and respond.