Faith Stories

Let us take a careful look at the story from Deuteronomy 26:1-11, which is the teaching of Moses as the people of Israel are getting ready to enter the Promised Land. Time is used in a really interesting way in this book, the phrase “this day” melds together events that happened (when the people were slaves in Egypt), events happening (Moses’ leadership during the time of desert wanderings) and events to happen (settlement in the Promised Land) into one time frame – this day – every event threaded together in God.

The portion we read today is, as my Hebrew professor says, to be underlined three times. It’s not just important, but incredibly significant for us as a people of faith. This is the first piece of scripture that describes liturgical action this fully. There is:

  • A setting: it’s harvest time, which is experienced with great thanksgiving
  • An action: first fruits are put in a basket, given to a priest, and set down in front of the altar
  • A telling of story: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt … the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us… we cried to the Lord… The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm… He brought us into this land, so now I bring the first fruits…
  • A gesture: bow down before the Lord your God.
  • A ceremony: Then you, with the Levites and aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty the Lord has given to you.

This is the story of a people’s response to a harvest: bringing first fruits; telling a story; a gesture and a ceremony. What knits this liturgy together – what is at the center – is a story. It’s not just a story about long ago – we are a part of each step of the journey. “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor… The Egyptians treated us harshly, we cried to the Lord, who brought us out of Egypt, and into this land, so new I bring first fruits.”

This story is a powerful story about relationship with God which contains the “this day” of being treated harshly by the Egyptians, the “this day” of being brought out of Egypt, the “this day” of being brought into a new land, and the “this day” of the offering of first fruits in thanksgiving. This is a faith story. It is a story that not only belongs to the spiritual ancestors, but to each generation that speaks it, each generation who claims it’s truth as the medium for making meaning of their own stories.

I have always loved how the bible doesn’t sugar-coat the stories so that everyone comes out smelling like roses. There is murder and mayhem; people looking for love in all the wrong places; sorrow and sadness and despair; joy and delight; imperfect people chosen by God to accomplish various tasks; love songs and songs of lament – every human emotion and scandal and hope is found in bible stories.

Jesus knew the Hebrew Bible – what we call the Old Testament – really well. He quotes from the Psalm and Deuteronomy often, so much so that the Book of Deuteronomy is often called the fifth Gospel. Today’s Jesus story of being tempted in the wilderness may be a familiar one – we encounter it in our cycle of readings each first Sunday in Lent. Satan is tempting Jesus with power: to turn stones to bread; to worship Satan to gain control of the kingdoms of the world; to throw himself off of the top of the most impressive building in the Jerusalem to be saved by angels.

Jesus answers each of these temptations with a quote from Deuteronomy!

  • Concerning stones and bread: Jesus quotes from a passage (Dt 8:3) that talks about God giving manna in the wilderness. “in order to teach you that man does not live on bread alone, but … on [what] that the Lord decrees.” Jesus knows that we seek more in our relationship with God – more than the food we eat.
  • Concerning exchanging worship of Satan for control of earthly kingdoms: Jesus quotes from a passage (Dt 6:13) that talks about relationship with God. “Revere only the Lord your God and worship Him alone…” Jesus is not willing to break his relationship with God to obtain what Satan promises.
  • Concerning throwing himself from the pinnacle of the temple: Jesus quotes from a passage (Dt 6:16) that speaks to a command not to test God. “Do not test the Lord your God as you did at Massah.” What was done at Massah – early in the wilderness journey (Ex 17:7) – was to ask whether or not the Lord was with them. Jesus was not willing to test God this way.

There is another thing I love about the bible – its stories are also my stories.

  • For many years I had no reason or opportunity to speak on behalf of a group of people. Yet With the Clark County CARES work, I find myself the appointed spokesperson. My first thought was like that of Moses or Jeremiah – I can’t speak, Lord! God, however, had different plans for these prophets, as this group did for me. I have spoken in front of the Clark County Commissioners, our Governor, several newspaper reporters, and a couple of TV stations. It helped that I realized I did know what to say – the group has coached me, and I know what is important to them and their vision for this community.
  • When Don and I were searching for a call, we decided to ask God for an airport close by, an NPR station, farmers markets and a relatively healthy diocese. Jeffersonville was not on our radar screen – I think I could have named about a half dozen communities in Indiana – yet, like so many biblical stories, we were open to journey. The wise men searched for Jesus, Abraham left Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan, Amos was called to leave home and prophesy elsewhere. We feel that God indeed guided us here.
  • The Psalms are filled with snippets that speak what we feel:
    • We chose Psalm 67 for our wedding, enfolding our hope for our future in its language: “May God give us his blessing”
    • Don’s mother’s final illness began the day we drove here from Rochester, NY. My father had a serious hospitalization almost a year and a half ago. “I lift up my eyes to the hills; from where is my help to come? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.”
    • When we are faced with difficult decisions, we know we need to place ourselves in God’s Presence and to listen deeply. “You are my refuge and my stronghold, my God in whom I put my trust.”
  • I am formed by biblical images,
    • such as light and life at the beginning of John’s gospel, Moses’ call to choose between blessing and curse, life and death,
    • Amos’ prophetic image of the waters of justice rolling down from the mountains,
    • Paul’s imagery of the Body,
    • Revelation’s imagery of God’s renewal of the earth with the leaves of the trees for the healing of the nations,
    • and Jeremiahs’ discourse on not needing to learn about God because God will have put a new heart within, a heart that already knows God. These images are all important to me; they shape me.

Part of our task as followers of Jesus is to learn how to tell our faith stories. How we trust God to be Present. How we know that God will knit broken bones together, and plant seeds of hope, and how broken branches will heal and grow, and how some roots needs to be dug out, and when we delight.

Take a moment to consider what stories, or characters, or images, or bible passages are important to you, or tug on your heart in some way?

  • Which stories are like yours, or which stories you turn to for comfort or strength?
  • Which stories are for storms, and which for rejoicing?
  • Which are for illness and loss? Which for hope?

Together, these stories – our individual stories and our scripture stories – are our sacred stories. It is through these stories that we know we are threaded together in God.

Nancy

About don

The Rev Don Hill is an Episcopal priest, rail fan and writer. He and his wife the Rev. Dr. Nancy Woodworth-Hill are currently Co-Pastors of St Paul's Episcopal Church, Jeffersonville IN, in the Diocese of Indianapolis. They also work as parish consultants in Appreciative Inquiry, strategic planning and spirituality development for parishes and vestries.
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