“A Wandering Aramean?” / Deuteronomy 26:1-11 / 10 March 2019
A wandering Aramean? What’s…an Aramean? Are you sure it doesn’t mean to say a wandering Armenian? You don’t suppose it’s a wandering Alabaman, do you? Where’s Aram? Why was this poor ancestral fellow a drifter, wandering about from place to place? And most of all, what could his homelessness possibly have to do with you and me? There are passages like this in the Hebrew Scriptures that are absolutely central to Judaism, but that 21st century gentiles find mystifying and strange. And yet, this is such an important Bible passage in temples and in synagogues precisely because it speaks about something that we’ve all felt, that universal feeling of being an outsider, a drifter. We’ve all felt like vagrants at some point in our lives. Maybe you find yourself there even today. We all know what it is to feel like a nomad, to feel lonely in a crowd, to long for connections we don’t have. Each of us has found ourselves tossing about for things to believe in, searching for people to look up to, hoping to find a place or a group where we can belong. Strangely enough, folks in the retirement home find themselves wandering about the cafeteria with their trays, looking for a table to sit at, just like they did in elementary school. Everyone feels cut adrift from time to time, maybe even a little bit homeless. And more urgently, many people literally are homeless. There are more refugees roaming our planet today than there have been since World War II. We may not know what a wandering Aramean is, but we know what a wandering American is! The solution to spiritual and emotional drift in the Book of Deuteronomy is to remember.
This past Christmas, one of the gifts I got from Michelle was an ancestry test kit. These are very popular right now. They come with a little vial that you spit into, then you mail it off to be tested. They run your DNA through the lab, then email you back to tell you where your ancestors come from, what percentage of your genetic makeup is Italian, or German, or Irish, and even which regions of those countries they’re from. Most of us just make assumptions about our ancestors. “Oh, my last name is Scottish, so I must be Scottish.” But unless we’re from recent immigrant stock, Americans are such a mixture of ethnicities that it takes spitting into a mail order test tube to figure it all out. The story in my family was that we were Germans—but not the mean kind. We were the nice kind of German, Pennsylvania Dutch, you know, harmless, peace-loving people who churn apple butter and paint hexes on their barns. There’s a rural county named after us in the central part of the state, a place of tidy farms and wooded hills.
But apparently that’s only 40% of the story! An old family myth about our being part Seneca Indian turned out to be a lie—but that’s no surprise, for apparently a good many of my harmless and peace-loving, apple butter churning ancestors were liars. My father’s grandfather used to boast that his real name was Fitzpatrick, that he was an Irishman, but that he was living under a pseudonym because he was hiding out from the law. No one believed the man. He was a notorious liar. He used to advise his grandchildren, “If you tell little lies, you’ll forget what you’ve said. You should lie big, so you don’t lose track of your lies.” But you know what doesn’t lie? DNA tests! And somebody back there is indeed from County Cork, where the Blarney Stone stands, and where the name Fitzpatrick originated.
Michelle also gave one of these ancestry test kits to a member of her family. The old tribal legend among the Hannas is that their forbears originally came to Scotland from Syria. No one knows if it’s true. But of course, a lot of folks in rural America have a strong negative reaction when they hear words like “Syria” and “Arab.” And for some reason, he has yet to spit into his vial. So much is forgotten in just one generation.
If you have children, just think of all the knowledge you possess that they do not! How to use a rotary dial phone, and weed a garden, and eat grapes and watermelon with seeds. Think of all the mysteries they understand that you never will! How to use hashtags, and Instagram, and who Lin-Manuel Miranda is! (I have one daughter who’s interested in musical theater, and I enjoy mispronouncing his name just for her reaction.) History is just so long, and our place in it so short. The past matters little when you have things to worry about today. The centuries all stack up on each other, and it’s hard to keep their little bits of information straight. If you go climbing up the family tree and you get to a place where you can no longer put faces with the names, then the names start to lose their meaning. Mostly what we know about ourselves is who loved us and who didn’t; where we’ve felt safe and where we haven’t; what things have made sense to us and what haven’t. What ethnicity are we? Where’s our place in the world? What religion do we belong to? Questions of lineage and kindred are a little bit beyond most of us. When you’ve got to get out of the tunnel, cross three lanes of traffic, and exit on the left—you’re just too preoccupied to worry about the past. In the end, it’s our own private stories that we remember. That’s precisely the advice that we find in the Book of Deuteronomy: Remember! Remembering our story keeps us grounded and grateful.
And by the way, an Aramean is a person from Syria. The Wandering Aramean in our Old Testament reading is Jacob, the guy who stole his brother’s inheritance, and fled home, and roamed the world unwanted, and wrestled with an angel before becoming the father of the Hebrews. His children were sold into slavery in Egypt, but God delivered them and brought them into their own land, a good place of milk and honey, a place of abundance. Our reading from the Book of Deuteronomy on this first Sunday in Lent is all about the wisdom of remembering. Remember the goodness that you have known at God’s hand. Remember that you were once strangers, and be kind to the stranger. Remember that you were aliens, and be good to aliens. Remember that you could have been wanderers yourselves if not for the free gifts you’ve received. It makes you grateful, it grounds you in your own identity, when you remember.
Lent began this past Wednesday. And on this First Sunday in Lent, the gospel reading is always about Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. But I’ve been preaching about temptation on the first Sunday in Lent for the last fourteen years. Today instead let us focus on the message of our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, the call to remember. For our greatest temptation is to forget. Ours is an age of forgetfulness, an era of spiritual and historical amnesia. And if remembering our own story and its blessings makes us grounded and grateful, then forgetting our story makes us rootless and thankless. Forgetting condemns us to lives cut off from things that give them meaning.
On a trip back to Oklahoma City, where I went to college, an old friend took me around to show me all the many things around town that had changed since I moved away in the mid-90s. It really is a much nicer place now than it was back then, though when you’re young you can enjoy pretty much any place. I still thought the town had a haunting emptiness to it, a quiet that felt almost eerie in a city. I’m used to a contoured landscape with hills, and trees, and steep streets. Out in Oklahoma, I feel exposed. There’d be no place to hide if Godzilla attacked. The town where I got my first job and my first apartment will always have a special place in my heart. But going back to visit made me glad to be living again in the place where my first memories of the world were formed. The landscapes that we knew in childhood—their topography, and vegetation, their sounds, and colors, and skies—these surely shape our inner lives in ways we seldom consider. And though it was good to be a young man out West, at my age it’s better to be in the places I knew as a child. The Great Plains all around the town encroach. The tall buildings aren’t quite tall enough, and a little too far apart; too much light reaches into the downtown streets. That old Oklahoma wind blows too hard, bending what few trees there are into tortured, evil-looking shapes. It’s not my place anymore, despite all the improvements they’ve made in the past 20 years. Looking around the place where I once made a life, I had to ask myself, “What was I doing out here? Of all the places, why did I choose this one?” But we’ve all been wandering Arameans in our time, have we not?
There was one change in Oklahoma City that left me speechless. There in a weedy area near the river, they built an enormous sculpture park that depicted the Oklahoma Land Run of 1889. You recall that the Trail of Tears leads to Oklahoma. No white man wanted the flat land with the red soil, so the Native Americans from all over the country were packed off to live there. But then the US government changed its mind and decided that they did want Indian Territory after all. And so, to get white people to settle there, they took the land from the Indians and gave it away to anyone who would stake a claim, the “Land Run.” The desperate and the dispossessed from every state came looking for a home there. This sculpture park is a series of fifty-or-so larger-than-life bronze statues of the original Oklahoma settlers, all of them making a mad dash for land, in a parade of anxiety and hope. There are statues are men on horseback and women and children in wagons. There are bronze dogs, chasing after bronze Conestoga. There are bronze horses with bronze riders in cowboy hats. There are bronze women in bonnets, reaching for bronze children who are leaning dangerously close to falling overboard. There’s even a bronze jackrabbit, dodging out of the way of the horses’ bronze hooves. It’s a magnificent memorial to the poor folks from every place who came to Oklahoma, hoping at last to find a place to call their own, a plot of land to ranch or farm. And most moving of all, is their faces: all twisted with fretfulness and expectation as they make a run to stake their claim, the hurry and worry.
It’s the faces of the poor, who have been pushed out of every place—but who, ironically, have been present in every time and in every place of history. They should have a sculpture park for the poor Cherokees, forced to Oklahoma in the first place; and for the Central Americans in our own day, fleeing the gangs and violence of their homelands and seeking asylum at our southern border; and for our own ancestors who fled the bishops and the kings of old Europe; and maybe even for that wandering Aramean who fathered the nation of Israel. The world has forever been awash in refugees—fugitives of every kind, and never more than today, fleeing crime, or unemployment, or war, or religious persecution. And none of them flee their native places because they want to. They flee because they find no possibility of staying there, no hope, no peace. Looking at the faces of those bronze statues, I had to wonder if my own face was twisted in fear and hope thirty years ago when I fled to that place. For I, too, have been a wandering Aramean…and so have you.
The satirical book Stuff White People Like makes the claim that white people like belonging to religions that their parents do not belong to. Ours is a culture of flight, a society of spiritual refugees, our faces haunted with anxiety and hope. In our age, there is a great thirst for meaning, a deep longing for something to believe in. And in this vast carnival of American life, there are spiritual solutions for every personality and whim. You’ve got your mega-churches with their stadium-style seating and their high-tech performances. You’ve got your craft-beer-and-theology churches meeting in the backrooms of bars. You’ve got your meditation circles, and your ashrams, and your incense and statues. You’ve got your New Age practices, and your Native American practices, and your resurging interest in the religions of the Vikings, and the Druids, and the Celts. You’ve got your house churches and your traditional churches like this. Ours is a society cut adrift, wandering about, looking for spiritual meaning, aching to find the right words and rituals to lend meaning to their days and by which to make sense of their lives—unable to find it in the faiths that they knew in their youths. Perhaps this is what happens to people whose sense of history only goes back two generations, and whose sense of their own identities has mostly to do with what they do to make money, and what they own. Oh, remember! Wandering Arameans, wandering Americans, we must remember our own private stories. We must sit with who we are and what we have seen in life. We must make an effort to remember God’s goodness to us.
That’s what we’re doing again this year for our Lenten vespers services; we’re having church members tell us their stories. There are few things more powerful than looking at your own life and all that you’ve been through, all that you’ve seen, and recognizing the threads of beauty and salvation that have run through it. We so rarely pause to remember. Now, I’m not saying that we should be backward-looking people, stuck in the past. But I am saying that there is power in occasionally looking back at where we’ve come from. It gives us a sense of all that we’ve been given, a sense of how far we’ve come, and where we’re headed. Remembering the path we’ve trod gives us a sense of perspective for life in this world. And so, for this new season of Lent let us give up the forgetfulness that marks our age and makes of us refugees, always seeking something to follow, something to believe in, something to be. And for Lent, let us take up the cry of the Hebrew Scriptures, the call to remember. Remember where you’ve been, what you’ve seen, what others have done for you, the obstacles you’ve overcome. Let us remember the refugees of our world, for we have all been aliens and seekers in our time. Let us pause frequently in the silence of this late wintertime, and remember that you, too, have been a wandering Aramean. Forgetting your own journey will make you rootless and restless. But remembering will make you grounded and grateful. Amen.