The following is a sermon I preached at Clackamas United Church of Christ, near Portland, Oregon. You can read or watch the sermon below. The primary scripture texts were Deuteronomy 26:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13.
Today is the first Sunday of Lent. The season of Lent consists of roughly the 40 days prior to Easter Sunday. Lent commemorates the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness where he was tempted by the devil. Jesus was tempted in multiple ways, and he resisted each temptation.
There is a tradition during Lent that we give up a temptation in imitation of Jesus. Sometimes we give up chocolate or coffee. Sometimes we try to give up anger or hatred toward someone.
I generally think that giving something up for Lent is a good thing. But in my personal experience, I have noticed that we can give up something like chocolate for 40 days and still be a jerk.
And so the point of Lent is not simply to give something up. That may be a part of the journey of Lent. But the real point of Lent is to catch us up into something bigger than ourselves. The season of Lent catches us up into the very life of God.
Lent is a time where we examine the things inside of us that block the flow of God from moving through us. We offer to give those things up to God. It could be addictions to food or alcohol or drugs or social media. Or it could be an addiction to anger or hatred or fear or resentment or power.
But if Lent is meant to catch us up into God and allow the flow of God to move through us, we need to ask a question – What is God like?
One of the great spiritual truths that our Jewish siblings offer us is that God is a giver. God offers us gifts. We see this in our reading from the book of Deuteronomy. The passage starts like this, “When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it” you shall take some of your first fruits and offer it to God.
Here’s the point. God gives the people the land. The land does not belong to the people. It belongs to God. It is God’s good gift to give. God provides for us because God is a giver. That is who God is. The fundamental flow of God is to give.
And the passage continues on to say that when you enter into the land, you are to give as an offering a portion of your first fruits of the land back to God.
Why? What’s the point of offering a portion of the gift God has given us back to God?
There have been many answers to this question. There’s one answer that I don’t like and that’s this: You need to give to God in order to get God on your side. You need to give something to God in order for God to love you. This mentality can be summed up as “I give in order to receive.” This relates to Lent if we believe we are giving something up in order to earn God’s love or favor.
I don’t like this idea because it puts our relationship with God in an economy of exchange. It’s kind of an “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch my back” relationship. But God doesn’t need God’s back scratched. That’s because God’s fundamental identity is as a giver. God only relates to us in the spirit of love and gift. A few weeks ago we read one of Jesus’ teachings where he claimed that God is merciful and kind to everyone, including those we label as our enemies. That’s because God always relates to everyone in the spirit of gift. God is love and love is a gift. So you don’t have to offer anything to God to get God on your side. You don’t have to give up anything for Lent in order for God to love you. God is already on your side. God already loves you.
But this idea of giving in order to receive is also dangerous in our social relationships. Let me give you an example. There are times during Christmas when someone gives me an expensive gift. At first I respond with amazement, but then I begin to think that next Christmas I need to get this person something of equal or greater value. Pretty soon the gift giving becomes a toxic competition of who can give the best gift.
This relationship of exchange can also work in another way. I can give a gift to someone, but there’s often a string attached. I may not expect a gift of equal value to be given to me, but I at least expect a thank you card. And if I don’t receive a thank you card in return, I can start getting resentful. I can start to think this other person is so ungrateful – they didn’t even send me a thank you card!
Now, of course there are some relationships that are one sided and you find yourself as the only giver. Those types of relationships can be toxic and their may come a point when you need to move on and give to someone or something else.
But the fundamental posture of God is to offer the gift of love to everyone. I know that when I fall into a gift giving with strings attached, I haven’t opened myself up to the flow of God. Because the flow of God just gives the gift. God doesn’t need thanks or our offering. God doesn’t get resentful if we don’t respond with a thank you card. God doesn’t change based on what we give or don’t give to God. God just continues to give and to love us because that’s who God is.
So why does our passage in Deuteronomy instruct us to give an offering back to God? Not to earn God’s favor, but because God wants to flow through us. God invites us to get caught up in the life of God by imitating God. And the way to do that is to give something back.
But please notice that the point in Deuteronomy isn’t just to give the first fruits back to God. The end of the passages says that the fruit of our offerings are to be used at a celebration. And who is invited to the celebration?
This is how you know you have entered into the flow of God’s gift giving: when you give without expecting anything in return. When you give and even those who cannot give anything back are still invited to the celebration.
And here’s what we maybe need to hear the most in 21st century American – in Deuteronomy, even the alien, the immigrant, the foreigner, the refugee is invited to the party. Throughout history, immigrants have been scapegoats for cultures, blamed for all of the problems of society. They are often labeled as “others” who are feared and who don’t belong.
And yet the Bible repeatedly tells us to not let fear guide us, but to treat the alien, the foreigner, the immigrant as if they do belong to us. Because according to the Bible, they in fact do belong! They are invited to the celebration. And so part of our first fruits are to go to those whom many fear and claim don’t belong.
This can feel risky because when we offer a percentage of our first fruits, we don’t necessarily know if there will be second fruits. Shouldn’t we keep all of our fruit to ourselves, just in case there’s a drought? But when we have that fearful mentality, it blocks the flow of God’s generous gift giving from moving through us. Instead of fear, we can trust God who has given to us in the past will continue to give to us in the future. And from our trust in God, we can trust that there will be enough for everyone because God will continue to give to us all.
The Bible tells me that all people are created in the image of God. That is our identity as human beings. We are all divine image bearers. And so immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, are created in God’s very image. Like Jesus, many immigrants have suffered starvation as they travel through a desert wilderness from South America to the United States in search of safety. Indeed, Jesus is in them and how we treat them matters.
Let me make another connection to immigrants and Jesus. While in the desert, Jesus was met by the devil. The devil tempted Jesus at the very core of his identity.
Before Jesus went into the wilderness, he was baptized. During his baptism he heard the voice of God saying, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” God declares Jesus to be the divine Son.
And here in the desert, the devil comes to Jesus and says, “If you are really God’s Son, then do something to prove it!”
With that little word “If” we find that the devil’s real temptation is to get Jesus to doubt his God-given status as God’s Son. The devil is that voice in our culture that says, “You can’t really trust that God loves you.” It’s the voice that says, “You aren’t loveable because you aren’t pretty enough or strong enough or smart enough or rich enough or white enough or American enough.”
But don’t listen to that voice. Because you are loved. And as Deuteronomy tells us, so are immigrants.
When people live in fear and tell immigrants – even undocumented immigrants – that they aren’t welcome, they have stopped the movement of God’s generous gift giving from flowing through them. There is no “If” when it comes to whether undocumented immigrants are created in the image of God.
Rev. Jen Butler is the CEO of an organization called Faith in Public Life. She went to the border recently and met a 9 year old boy from Honduras. This boy fled to the United States because his father was murdered. Reverend Butler asked the boy what he hoped for. The boy simply responded, “I wish we were welcome here.”
I wish that, too. Because God’s image dwells in that boy as it dwells in all immigrants.
I tell you this story because we are called for such a time as this. Deuteronomy spoke to the people of God about caring for aliens and immigrants when it was written 2,500 years ago. And it has called to every generation since. It calls us to give because God has already given us so much. It calls us to trust that there is enough for all people. It calls us to open ourselves to the flow of God’s love that embraces all people, including undocumented immigrants and refugees.
And the more I am here at Clackamas United Church of Christ, the more I love what we stand for. Did you know that in 1992, our church voted to be a Sanctuary Church for immigrants and refugees? We were one of the first Sanctuary Churches in Oregon. Back in the 90s, we took in refugee families seeking safety from political violence in the Congo.
We have a long history participating in God’s call to invite everyone to the table of God’s welcoming love. We have entered into the flow of God’s radical gift giving in the past so that we could love God and love our neighbors as we love ourselves. And through our offerings of time, talent, and treasure, we, the members of CUCC, trust that God will continue provide for us as we participate with God in creating a more just and loving world.
And so during this season of Lent, may open ourselves up so that the divine flow of love moves through us.
May we trust in God, who is the giver of all good gifts.
And may we continue to give of ourselves as we seek a more loving and just world for all. Amen.