Models of Radical Inclusiveness and Care – March 6

A sermon based on Deuteronomy 26:1-11

given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on March 6, 2022

by Rev. Scott Elliott

Our religion, Christianity, has deep, deep roots in Judaism. Jesus was born into a Jewish family in a Jewish town in a Jewish country.  He grew up Jewish, he went to Temple, he went to synagogue, he was baptized by a Jewish religious leader and he himself became a Jewish religious leader and rabbi.  Jesus’ teachings are deeply rooted in Judaism and all of his disciples were Jewish, as were Paul and the Gospel writers– AND Jesus.

Eventually Christianity became a separate religion but Judaism remains more than a part of our history, it is woven into the DNA of our faith. We are as tightly related to Judaism as a younger sibling. Consequently, we can, and should, take seriously the ancestral claims set out in the Hebrew Scriptures. It’s why we have them in our Bibles. Today’s text is no exception. Jesus and our history include Jewish history and Scriptures.

The great, great ancestors of Jesus and our faith were nomads and semi-nomads, people who wandered with their herds without a year-long base camp.  Abraham was a nomad from Aram who wandered a lot.  Jacob’s mother was also from Aram and Jacob spent a lot of time there too and he also did a lot of wandering.  Abraham and Jacob were literally wandering Arameans. They are ancestors, fathers of Judaism and Christianity.

A wondering Aramean was our ancestor.  At the time our lesson was written that phrase is thought to have already been old. It predates much of the Bible, so its roots are as deep as they get.  Consequently “A wondering Aramean was our ancestor” is ancient and ours to claim. Why is that important? By the time Deuteronomy was written year-long base camps had already risen up and led to clusters of homes, and then towns and cities.  The nomadic way of living gave way for many to the agriculture way of staying put and tilling soil on farms or working jobs in cities. Along with settling down came disputes between the remaining nomads, and the farmers and city folk.  They became antagonistic, even enemies. The very first murder in the Bible reflects the extent and the horror of the animosity when Cain, the farmer killed his brother Abel, the nomad. The phrase “a wandering Aramean was my ancestor” reminded the city and farm folk that nomads are not enemies to be “other-wised,” but first and foremost are kin. They too are woven into our DNA– and the very people God chose to begin the faith, and the very people who began it. They are our forefathers and foremothers, and our brothers and sisters.

While “a wandering Aramean was my ancestor” is the most famous phrase in today’s Biblical text it does not stand alone. It comes with another reminder to Jews and Christians alike that their kin also come from a long line of aliens who were abused and oppressed – as aliens– until God rescued them.  The middle part of our Lectionary lesson is a reminder that there are not supposed to be “others” in our faith, that our formation stories are of a people being other-wised and oppressed– who were sought and saved by God.

The reading recognizes and celebrates that God sides against oppression and oppressors and rescues people from injustices and that God did that on our behalf:

“When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

Our lesson goes on to instruct that we are to celebrate this rescue and salvation by honoring God with humility– and by offering the best we have to offer.  We are to bring the best– the first of the fruits – that God has given us and set them humbly down before God, and then “together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among [us] . . . celebrate with all the bounty that . . . God has given [us].”

Note that the aliens who reside among us are to be equals in all of this. The wanderings Arameans, and those like them, people often oppressed like our forebearers were, are to be treated well, just as God treated our ancestors well.  This was radical back in Biblical times. It is radical still today to treat aliens who reside with us with care and dignity and as equals. Yet God has long commanded it.  It’s long been a Biblical model for us to follow. We are to celebrate with ALL our neighbors with ALL the bounty God has given us. We are to do as God did for us, to rescue those the culture outcasts and oppresses. Indeed, in the verses that follow our Lectionary text God commands a tithing “to the Levites (the priestly tribe), the aliens, the orphans, and the widows, so that they may eat their fill within.” That was radically inclusive and radically caring stuff back then and remains so today.

In the modern Christian faith this sort of inclusion and care is part and  parcel of what is called Progressive Theology, which in my view might better be called Jesus’ and the Prophets’ Theology or Jesus’ Centered Christianity. The banner in the front of the church last month noted that we practice Progressive Theology,  which for a church means Progressive Christianity. I’ve been asked what that is.  If you “Goggle it” Wikipedia offers this great summary:

“Progressive Christianity . . . is characterized by a willingness to question tradition, acceptance of human diversity, a strong emphasis on social justice and care for the poor and the oppressed, and environmental stewardship of the earth. Progressive Christians have a deep belief in the centrality of the instruction to ‘love one another’ within the teachings of Jesus Christ. This leads to a focus on promoting values such as compassion, justice, mercy, and tolerance, often through political activism.”

The political activism referred to is not about being Republican or Democrat or Libertarian or even politically liberal, moderate or conservative. It’s about influencing how people are treated by earthly powers and the culture in everyday governing and public affairs. We do this following the example of the Prophets and the Apostles and, of course, Jesus himself who were all, to one extent or another,  actively trying to influence how the powerful and the culture tended to the well-being of others.  You don’t necessarily have to be for or against a political party to claim “A wondering Aramean was our ancestor” or to tithe and care for those in need, or “together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among [us] . . . celebrate with all the bounty that . . . God has given [us].”   What you need to be working FOR is the type of radical inclusiveness and care the Bible models over and over again.

The Lord’s Supper is actually supposed to model that for us too. It reminds us that Jesus’ table and way was open to all in his day and is supposed to be open to all now. It reminds us that Christ, God, is in the food and drink and care that we provide to others, not just at this table, but through our tithing and efforts for the well -being of others, especially those excluded and oppressed elsewhere.  Being radically inclusive and radically caring is what the Lord’s Table is about and it’s a primary thread throughout both the Old Testament and the New Testament. It ought to be a primary thread in the life of Jesus’ Followers.  Amen.