Worship Reflection Sunday, December 31, 2023

Claim the Promise

The reading for today is from the second chapter of Luke. We learn from this reading that the Law of Moses requires Mary to take Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem and present him to the Lord to be consecrated. This is according to the law of Moses. Mary and Joseph are Jewish. Jesus is a Jew. They are conventional Jews doing what their faith requires. The other thing to note is that Jesus is the first-born son of Mary. This is very important. It is a patriarchal society. The first-born son occupies a very special place in the family. He is the one who has to be taken to the temple for this ceremony.

The backdrop to this ceremony is found in the 13th chapter of Exodus, beginning with the 11th verse. Let me read it: “The Lord will give you the land of the Canaanites, just as he promised you and your ancestors. From then on, you must give the Lord every first-born son from your families and every first-born male from your animals because these belong to God.” Then the next couple verses talk about first-born animals and donkeys and lambs, but then in verse 14 we get back to the children. The Law says, “In the future your children will ask what this ceremony means. Explain it to them by saying, ‘The Lord used his mighty power to rescue us from slavery in Egypt. The king stubbornly refused to set us free, so the Lord killed the first-born male of every animal and the first-born son of every Egyptian family. This is why we sacrifice to the Lord every first-born male of every animal and save every first-born son. This ceremony will serve the same purpose as a sign on your hand or your forehead to tell how the Lord’s mighty power rescued us from Egypt.” According to the law, every family must consecrate their first-born son to the story of liberation from slavery as a reminder of what the Lord has done.

This is where the tradition of tithing comes from. The first day of the week is the Lord’s Day. The first fruit of your labor belongs to the Lord. Your first-born son is to be consecrated to the Lord so that you remember what the Lord has done. Paul says in Romans “do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” In Galatians he writes, “For freedom Christ has set us

free. Do not submit to the yoke of slavery again.” The world is always trying in every way possible to make us conform to its norms and standards and values. The ceremony of consecration calls us to remember what the Lord has done, and to resist the pressures of the world to conform to its way of life. It’s a very radical, in the sense of basic or fundamental, text. It’s about our identity. It is also a text about claiming the promise of liberation for future generations. Take Jesus to the temple–claim the promise of freedom for yourselves and for future generations. It’s a great text for the last Sunday of the year. Make this Sunday our “Claim the Promise Sunday.” Instead of making a New Year’s resolution, claim the promise.

But there is more to the text. Joseph and Mary are to remember their liberation, and remember that the Lord brought them to a land “flowing with milk and honey,” the land of the Canaanites and Jebusites and Hittites, and gave it to them. This is the story of a Chosen People and a Promised Land. Indigenous People have reminded us that when the story of the Exodus is read with Canaanite eyes, it is a story of liberation and conquest. Thinking about what is happening in Israel and Gaza today, it feels like a story of liberation and conquest. If we look at our own history, it reads like a story of liberation and conquest–Chosen People and Promised Land.

After the Civil War the United States created a system of reservations for Indians. The idea was that the federal government would “reserve” this land for Indians who would then be given time to be assimilated into White Christian society. It’s our own version of the Exodus, Chosen People-Promised Land story. Now Indigenous People are telling us we need a new story.

The alternative to the liberation-conquest story is found in the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 26:5. Scholars think this is the oldest verse in the Hebrew

Bible. Here it is: “A wandering Aramean was my father (ancestor). The text goes on to discuss the first fruit, just like the Exodus story, but it says, “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; therefore, open your hand to the sojourner, the widow, and the orphan. The story is not about conquest but community.

I enjoy reading the work of Vine Deloria, Jr., a Lakota Sioux. In one book (We Talk, You Listen) he said we are living in a very spiritual time. We cannot go on thinking that everything will turn out all right. We have to take a stand, and make a choice about the future. I think of Dr. King telling us that “progress does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability.” DeLoria says we have come to a moment of choice between the castle and the tipi.” The differences are immense. One form is governed by efficiency, technology and control. There are lords of the manor who build the enclosures, and the people who work in the factories and fields. The way of the tipi is the logic of community and relationships. The measure of a successful economy and a successful society is the well-being of the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner. It is a society that values people over profits. Everyone is assured access to affordable health care, decent housing, good schools, and a living wage. Now is the time to claim the promise of the tipi, to use DeLoria’s metaphor.

We as a congregation have made that choice. We have said we will be allies and advocates for the Queer community, and more broadly for civil rights for everyone. Given the choice we have made, 2024 is going to be a very promising year. Amen