Deuteronomy 26:1-11 † Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 † Romans 10:8b-13 † Luke 4:1-13
Possession is nine-tenths of the law. No doubt you’ve heard this adage that suggests that if you possess something, you have a stronger legal claim to owning it than someone who merely says they own it.
The doctrine allowed Floyd Hatfield to retain possession of the pig that the McCoys claimed was their property, although we can imagine it didn’t make their lives better or help to de-escalate the historic dispute between the Hatfields and McCoys.
The old saw has underlined feuds on too many school playgrounds to count. It has destroyed countless friendships. It has been front and center in disputes in U.S. history with tragic results for many of the early dwellers of these lands. It has contributed to the fire between Palestinians and Israelis, and all of their proxies, and in too many stories to tell on every continent throughout every age. The question of ownership and land is arguably at the root of every conflict, all human violence, and the climate change peril that our planet and its inhabitants are facing.
So it may interest us to note that this is something of a theme in the telling of our scriptures today.
The verb “possess” occurs more than thirty times in the first eleven chapters of the book of Deuteronomy and its story of Israel’s exodus from slavery into an ancient promise. Israel was promised a land to possess. But this didn’t mean they owned the land. They possessed the land, but it was not theirs.
That’s really the whole point of this story about offering first-fruits. In the way the story is told, we might even read it as if this caravan of refugees are just stumbling into a land in the height of the harvest—as if they’ve done no work, they’ve done nothing to till the ground or plant the seed or water and tend it—as if they show up just in time to reap their alleluias—to harvest the rewards and feast on the land’s abundance.
So it makes perfect sense that one of their first instructions when coming into the land, is to give thanks for its gifts, to give of its first-fruits, to engage in a ritual and an act of memory that reminds the people this thing does not belong to them, as if they created the 14 billion year-old dust they walk on, or the worms and the nutrients that nourish the loamy soil in which the crops grow, or the water that falls from the sky and flows from the mountains to enliven the seed, or the sun that gives away its energy freely, or the universe that is 156 billion light-years wide.
Moses and the Israelites have been wandering in the wilderness for forty years, for two full generations, when they receive this instruction Barb read to us from Deuteronomy. You can imagine the energy, the anticipation, even the temptation—how palpable this promise is at this point as they can just look down on the land they are about to posses, as they begin to allow themselves to believe that what they have known for so long, this life of wandering, of camping, and trusting and itinerancy and piercing vulnerability is finally about to end.
It must be easy to imagine the practice of gratitude and thanksgiving Moses prescribes here—an outgrowth of the commandments to be sure—a practice to maintain a memory of where all good gifts come from, to hold onto a lifestyle that is filled with gratitude and generosity: a wandering Aramean was our ancestor, we were slaves in Egypt, outsiders, and then a great nation. Never forget.
It is all too easy, though to move from gratitude to something more sinister. I grew up hearing a simplistic interpretation of the conquest of the land that happens in the next breath, the story that unfolds in Joshua. The telling was shaped with the same sense of exceptionalism that drove the conquest of the Americas. It was rarely questioned. Rarely analyzed. Rarely nuanced. The prophets and psalmists who challenge it were never given voice. There was little critique of its impact on those who already happened to occupy the land, for example, who tilled the loamy soil, who grew the crops, who ate of its fruits. But my tradition made simplistic assumptions about exceptionalism that drove and defended a carefree, scorched earth policy when it came to the tactics of removing and exploiting whatever impediments—human or otherwise—stood in the way of the fulfilment of this promise of God.
For much of our history, we in the church in the West have hitched our wagon to this idea that we are the new Israel, and the belief that the land was our God-given right. And by we, I mean the Europeans colonial powers and their descendants.
The papal bull of Alexander VI in 1493, known commonly as “The Doctrine of Discovery” is a perfect example. Just on the heels of Christopher Columbus’ so-called discovery of the New World, the doctrine gave religious legitimization to the occupation, domination of, and the extraction from the New World to benefit old European powers. “We . . . give, grant, and assign to you and your heirs and successors, kings of Castile and Leon, forever, together with all their dominions, cities, camps, places, and villages,” it said, “all rights, jurisdictions, and appurtenances, all islands and mainlands found and to be found, discovered and to be discovered toward the west and south.” With those words the death of a thousand civilizations in the Americas was announced.
And this mythology has carried through American history to today.
John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony saw Cotton Mather as “America’s Nehemiah,” the governor of the chosen people, according to the historian Sacvan Bercovitch.[i]
In his book America’s Prophet: Moses and the American Story, noted author Bruce Feiler has traced the rhetoric of Moses into the heart of political discourse and notions of exceptionalism in the United States.
He notes, for example, that Christopher Columbus recorded in his journal, “The rising of the sea was very favorable to me, as it happened formerly to Moses when he led the Jews from Egypt.” And on a later voyage Columbus counted himself along with Moses and David as a recipient of God’s favor: “What more did he do for the people of Israel when he brought them out of Egypt?”[ii]
Feiler draws a direct line from the early formulation of the Monroe Doctrine and its uncompromising claims of “Manifest Destiny”—the belief that God was behind the settling of the land by the Europeans, to Harry Truman’s readiness to be the leader of the free world. American exceptionalism is written deep into our public rhetoric and every political leader must subscribe to it.
Walter Brueggemann, who traces this trajectory adds that our appeal to exceptionalism encourages us to cover a multitude of sins including a long history of economic injustice, and the claim of democracy that hides the rule of a political and economic elite, all in the name of chosenness.[iii] And it follows that the scourge of racism that is our original sin, and so hard for us to shed is rooted in this same mythology. Real Americans who are the chosen ones are those with European roots. So we know what it means when we hear the need to “take back our country.”
And while most, if not all of us who are here today, have been open to revisiting the sins of our past, it is hard to underestimate, I think, how deeply these roots go, and how they shape us still. So that, when we face our own anxiety for the survival of the institutional church, our preoccupation with budgets, rules, procedures, programs, buildings and such, reflect our fear at the loss of the privilege we have gained at the hand of this mythology, even as we know the truth of our life is found elsewhere—in the provision of the God whose house is a house of prayer for all people,[iv] of a God who refuses to play favorites, at the heart of a religious zeal that insists on the shelter of the whole of creation. So at the end of today’s reading, at the conclusion of the teaching to remember and give thanks, Moses says: “Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.”[v]
You see, God gives gifts in ways we do not expect or understand. So Jesus is full of the Spirit on the heels of his baptism, when he enters the wilderness. But he is also and equally full of the spirit when he returns from it and goes to his home town and there speaks of God’s impartiality when it comes to blessing and provision. So Jesus will later tell his followers not to worry about their lives, about what they will eat, or about their body, what they will wear. And he will look through the ages to remind us of how much more value we are than the birds who waste no time worrying, and yet have all they need, and the lilies who neither toil nor spin, yet are adorned more beautifully than Solomon in all his glory.
God is our shelter, the psalmist says, but God is not our possession. How important it is for us to remember this as we navigate away from our manifest sense of destiny, and toward a modesty and a neighborliness that makes room for others because it remembers that God makes room for us all, that the Spirit is with us in the wilderness of unknowing as our life and our shelter and our home. Amen.
[i] Sacvan Bercovitch, The Puritan Origins of the American Self (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975). Noted in
Brueggemann, Walter. Tenacious Solidarity (Location 2750). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
[ii] Bruce Feiler, America’s Prophet: Moses and the American Story (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 21. Noted in
Brueggemann, Walter. Tenacious Solidarity (Location 2761). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
[iii] Brueggemann, Walter. Tenacious Solidarity (Location 2765). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
[iv] Isaiah 56:7.
[v] Deuteronomy 26:11.
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