Chetwynd Shared Ministry
October 8, 2017 - Thanksgiving Sunday
Reading: Deuteronomy 8:7-18
I’m about to say something that you have probably not heard said very often. I love the book of Deuteronomy. Yes, I know that it has its problems. There are teachings in this book that promote violence – killing and stoning and war. There are teachings in this book that uphold the patriarchy where women were lesser humans than men. There are teachings in this book about slavery. I took a course a couple of years ago on the book of Deuteronomy, and at the start of the course, our professor Dr. Susan Slater told us that if, at the end of the course, we had come around to the idea that stoning wasn’t as bad as we thought that it was, then she would not consider the course to have been a success!
But at the same time as all of these troubling aspects, there are also some fabulous aspects to this book. It includes laws about how to have fair business dealings. It includes laws about being generous to those who are on the margins of society – widows, orphans, and refugees. It includes laws about how to live well together in community. There are also a couple of nuggets in the text, like the Shema, the enduring prayer of the Jewish people that begins: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”
But what I love most about the book of Deuteronomy is the story arc. To put it into context, Deuteronomy is the fifth and final book of the Torah – the “law” or the “teaching.” The Torah begins with the book of Genesis, which includes many of the stories we know from Sunday School – the creation stories, the tower of Babel, Noah and the arc, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel, and Joseph.
Then after Genesis comes the book of Exodus. Our Old Testament readings over the past month or so have been coming from Exodus. We read about how the Israelite people were slaves in Egypt, and how God called to Moses out of the burning bush. God told Moses that he was to go to the Egyptian Pharaoh and demand that he let the Israelite people go. When the Pharaoh finally did let the people go and they were leaving Egypt, God worked through Moses to part the waters of the Red Sea so that the people could pass through to the other side.
But then trouble came. The people were there, on the far side of the Red Sea, wandering in the wilderness. Now keep in mind, this isn’t the wilderness like we have in this part of the world. There were no trees and lakes and deer. The wilderness that the people were in was a desert wilderness – dry and rocky with blazing hot sun during the day and bitterly cold nights.
And the people complained to Moses. They asked him, “Why have you brought us out here in the desert to die? Surely it would have been better if we had stayed in slavery back in Egypt! At least when we were there, we had food to eat and water to drink and shelter at night.” And Moses did what most leaders do – he passed their complaints on to his superior. Moses told God that the people were complaining, and God responded.
God responded to the people by giving them food to eat – each morning, manna, or bread fell from heaven, fell on the ground like dew and the people were able to gather it up; and each evening flocks of quails came to where the people were camped. There was always enough for everyone – the only rule was that you could only collect what you needed for today and not hoard it in fear of the future.
God also responded to the people by giving them water to drink. There, in the middle of the dry and rocky desert, God told Moses to take his staff and hit a large rock with it; and when Moses did that, fresh water started flowing out of it.
God also responded to the people by keeping them safe and leading them through the desert. During the day, God would appear as a pillar of cloud, showing them the direction that they were to travel, and when the sun went down, God appeared as a pillar of fire, and continued to accompany them on their journey.
There in the desert, Moses climbed a mountain and received the law for the people – what we call today the ten commandments, as well as the details of how to follow them. You can find these details if you look in the next two books of the Torah – Leviticus and Numbers.
And then we get to the book of Deuteronomy. At this point, the people have been wandering in the wilderness for forty years, being fed by God, being given water by God, and being led by God. Forty years of constant movement, traveling from one place to the next, depending on God for everything. But now, at the start of the book of Deuteronomy, the people have reached the banks of the Jordan River. They are about to cross the river into the land that God had promised to them and to their ancestors; a land of plentiful fresh water and abundant food to eat. Listen to the description from today’s reading:
“For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper. You shall eat your fill, and bless the Lord your God for the good land he has given you.”
What a place. Other than the fig trees and pomegranates and olive trees, it sounds a bit like Canada…
But before the people are allowed to cross over the river and enter this land of abundance, they stop and camp on the far shore one more time. And Moses begins to recite the law to them again – a repetition of sorts of the two books that come before. In fact, the name of the book in English, Deuteronomy, comes from the Greek meaning, “Second Law.” But it isn’t quite a second or new law – it is more a second telling of the law. I actually like the Swahili title of this book of the bible – it translates to English as “Remembrance of the Law.”
But why do we have to sit through a second telling or remembrance of the law that God gave to the people? Surely once was enough?
It is because of where the people were at in their journey. For the past forty years, they have been completely and immediately dependent on God for everything – for their food to eat, their water to drink, for guidance and protection there in the wilderness. But they are about to enter a new place – a place where there is abundant food and water. God is still the one who will provide the rain and make the seeds grow, but it is a less immediate, a less obvious dependence on God. But God wants the people to remember that they depend on God for everything.
It’s easy to remember to call on God in difficult times. It’s harder for us – and I include myself in this “us” – it’s harder for us to remember to call on God and thank God when things are good in our lives. It is hard for us to remember during the good times that everything that we have comes from God; that we are dependent on God for our food, for our water, and for the air that we breathe.
If I may quote Dr. Slater, my Old Testament professor again, she says that the forty years spent wandering in the wilderness were the “desert school” for the Israelite people. God was schooling the people in how to be thankful for everything that God gives. It was a situation where, without God, they would have died with no food or water or GPS.
But now the people are on the verge of something new. Life is about to get a whole lot easier for the Israelite people. But God doesn’t want the people to forget the lessons that they have learned in the desert school. And so in today’s reading from Deuteronomy, God tells the people, don’t forget. Remember.
Remember that it was God who brought us out of slavery.
Remember that it was God who kept us safe in the desert amid the poisonous snakes and scorpions.
Remember that it was God who fed us with manna and quail.
Remember that it was God who made water flow out of the rock for us to drink.
God tells the people that even when life becomes easy, we aren’t to forget that it is only easy because of God. It’s not about us or what we do or earn.
And so here we are, Thanksgiving weekend in Canada. The connections to the text are easy to make. Many of us are in situations where we have much to be thankful for. We have food on our table and family and friends to share it with. This reading calls us to remember that all of this is only because of God.
And here at Chetwynd Shared Ministry, we also have the opportunity to participate in God’s mission of providing manna to those who are in the desert. There are those in our community who don’t have food on their table at holiday times; and so the Care Group here, among others in the community, are collecting donations for the Christmas Bureau to make sure that everyone in Chetwyd has food on their table at Christmas… manna in the desert. If you would like to participate in this part of God’s mission, there is a donation box right beside the door, and the Care Group will make sure that the donations get to the Christmas Bureau. They need regular non-perishable food donations – anything that you would normally donate to a food bank – to make the hampers happen this year.
So we have today’s reading from Deuteronomy speaking to us as we are reminded to offer our Thanksgiving for all that God gives us when life is good. We also have today’s reading from Deuteronomy speaking to us as we are challenged participate in God’s mission of providing manna to those in the desert.
But given everything that has happened in the world this week, I don’t think that I would be doing my job if I don’t ask the question, how does this reading speak to the pain and the heartbreak of the world? In the past week, there has been an act of terrorism close to home in Edmonton. In the past week, there has been an act of terrorism in Las Vegas. In the past week, there has been no sign of peace coming to the Korean peninsula. In the past week, another hurricane has hit the Caribbean and southern US. In the past week, people have lost loved ones, people have been in accidents, people have lost their jobs. In the midst of our Thanksgiving celebrations, we don’t have to look very far to find grief and fear.
But I do think that this reading speaks to the pain in our world. The Israelite people in the desert were also dealing with grief and fear. They had left behind their homes and their lives in Egypt. They were facing an unknown future. They faced danger on a daily basis in the desert. In the forty years that they were traveling, an entire generation passed so that most of the people who had left Egypt did not live to enter the land that had been promised to them.
And so in times of danger and fear and grief, I think that this reading speaks a message of hope. Hope that better times are coming. Hope that a different way of being is possible. The desert is going to give way to the promised land. Scarcity is going to give way to abundance. A time and place of death are going to give way to a time and place of life. A different world is not only possible, but a different world is coming soon.
And, when you think about it, isn’t that the very core of the Christian story? One of the central stories that we gather around is the Easter story. On the Friday, Jesus was killed and it seemed like the story was over; but Sunday brings the resurrection and life rather than death has the final word. Death gives way to life. The ending gives way to a new beginning. Grief and heartache give way to hope and joy.
And so this reading from Deuteronomy speaks to us on so many different levels. When times are good and we celebrate the abundance that surrounds us, this reading calls on us to remember that all good things come from God, and it calls us to remember to give thanks.
On another level, the reading also calls on us living in the midst of abundance to remember those who are in the scarcity of the desert times and it calls us to participate in God’s work of providing manna to those in the desert.
And finally, on a third level, this reading speaks to us when we are living through desert times, whether that desert is one of scarcity or one of grief or one of fear. This reading reminds us that the desert time doesn’t last forever but we can live with the hope, with the confidence that we are about to enter the promised land of abundance and security.
Have I mentioned that I love the book of Deuteronomy?!
In a few minutes, we are going to gather at the table and share in the bread and the wine. Last month, we made the connection between the word “Communion” and the word “community.” At the table, we don’t break bread alone, but we break the bread together in community. Another word that is used for this shared meal is “Eucharist” and the root of the word “Eucharist” means “Thanksgiving.” Each time we gather at the table, we are giving thanks to God. We thank God for calling us to the table. We thank God for all that God has done and provided for us. We thank God for being present with us at the table. And we thank God for the future that we know God has promised.
This is Thanksgiving weekend. Let us give thanks to God!
Let us pray:
we give thanks for all that you have given to us –
for food to eat and safe water to drink,
for shelter over our heads to keep us safe and warm,
for friends and family, both near and far,
for your promise that a different better world
is not only possible
but is coming,
and most of all, we give thanks
for your loving presence with us.
Thank you for being you,
for being more than we could ever imagine –
With humble awe,
knowing our words can never say enough,
we simply say “thank you.”
(Thanksgiving Display at Chetwynd Shared Ministry)