Lent 1 C: Thankful Like an Immigrant

The readings for the First Sunday of Lent are:

Old Testament      Deuteronomy 26:1–11

Psalm                    Psalm 91:1–2, 9–16

New Testament     Romans 10:8–13

Gospel                   Luke 4:1–13

Deuteronomy is a recipe for living the life of faith. And it says, “When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do these things:

  • Take some of the first fruit that the Lord has given you to the Temple and hand it to the priest, saying, “Yes – I’ve been blessed.”
  • When the priest takes it, make a further confession:
    • My father was a foreigner—a refugee—a wanderer–an alien in Egypt. I am of an immigrant people.
    • My father’s small, vulnerable family was blessed too. In the midst of oppression we cried out to the Lord and he used his terrible might to rescue us, and bring us here.
    • So, here I am with the first fruit of my land as an act of worship.
  • Then you, the Levites and the other aliens who have come to live with you, will celebrate God’s  goodness and God’s generosity together.

You wouldn’t know it, but we Americans are solidly in that camp. We have “come into the land God has given,” and it’s vital that we remember how to celebrate what we have. Yet our President has given his State of the Union Address, and all we hear is how his approval ratings are way down because things are so horrible.

We should know better; and if we are going to, we had better learn from the immigrants.

We have “come into the land God has given” through immigrants. America’s greatness is the product of being a nation of immigrants. Immigrants of the past, and of today. More than any other nation on earth, the “alien blood” courses through our veins. Almost 50 million of us are immigrants—that’s over 14 percent.

And the rest of us? Unless we are native Americans our ancestors came here looking for opportunity. They were aliens who left their country where there were wars and crop failures and laws that gave the inheritance to the firstborn and not to the rest. They came here and had to sweat and bleed–scratch and save—but God was with them and prospered them.

My own great, great grandparents came over when their families got tired of moving around because of all the conflicts in Switzerland, Germany and Italy. Things were so bad there that America looked promising even in the middle of its own Civil War. Their infant daughter died on the boat coming over. They had other children, but it great, great grandpa died young in a mining accident in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. My great grandparents moved on with the mining and lumbering businesses and set up a boarding house in the new-frontier town of Ely, Minnesota. They housed other desperate immigrants from Italy, Germany, Wales—a different mix of nations every year. Yes, immigrants literally built the nation. They dug the iron and cut trees that built the buildings we live in today.

So now I have a life in the land God gave me through those immigrant laborers. I have 43 acres of a farm. I have six dogs to take care of nine sheep. I have two cars, a lawn tractor, an ATV, a tractor, and so many books I don’t know what to do!

But our immigrant family and mine, and the immigrants around us today, give more than land and buildings. They give us ethics, and faith. Mom brought us to church and knelt by my bed for prayers at night. Dad taught me never to punch in late or punch out early at work, and always to work my hardest. I know it’s dangerous to hit a child, but I thank God my mother slapped me when I sassed her.

And, perhaps, most precious of all, was my parents who lived through the Great Depression, and whose parents and grandparents lived in a community of hard working immigrants, taught us kids to be grateful for what we had. Warm beds, food on the table, clothes with very few holes. We had just one car, one telephone, one tiny TV set, and a loud trains rumbling by just behind the house—but never did it cross our minds that we were anything but rich.

And I thank God that from their hard lives, my immigrant ancestors managed to pass down an ethic of humble respect of others, and value of hard work and sharing. And gratitude.

All of us Americans have inherited this rich faith and ethic.

So, at the start of this Lent, let’s learn Deuteronomy’s lesson to act like grateful Americans, and act  like Christians.

Lent is a time for renewal, and Deuteronomy is a recipe book for people like us who have come into the land God gave us, and who have made it, but who still need to work  at living  at being grateful for what we have and for the people who God uses to give it to us.

When the reporters and politicians make us afraid of immigrants and refugees—when they tell us that America is full, there isn’t enough to go around, and immigrants bring dirt and grime and disease—when they tell us that everything is going to hell in a hand basket—we must do two things:

  • Look around at our warm beds, nice clothing, good food, and count the number of phones and TVS and computers in our family.
  • Remember our family tree—back to immigrant parents and grandparents—and way back to that wandering Aramean that was our father–to Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, Moses and the whole lot of immigrants of Israel and the church.

You see Deuteronomy tells us how to renew our faith and our lives.

It says,

  • bring your first fruits,
  • make a loud and proud confession that your ancestors were refugees and aliens and immigrants, and immigration is part of your DNA,
  • give thanks for what you have,
  • and then celebrate God’s generosity with the aliens who today have come to live with you.

We get added advice when we put things in Lenten perspective and consider the temptations Jesus had to overcome in the wilderness in order to become our Savior. All the wealth and privilege and power that we have today as Americans, especially white Americans, can be both blessing and temptation. Temptation when the Devil twists our minds away from thankfulness and humility toward God and toward worship of wealth and power for its own sake. The Devil is always there trying to sell us on all this stuff as a shortcut to heaven. Oh how I love my farm and all my stuff; but it’s not all that God has in mind for me. What God has in mind is that I use the farm and the books and all the stuff I have for others. For the love of others.

Jesus’ answer to the Devil is also a call to us, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”

Today, we can thank God we aren’t a Ukranian refugee today. Or a Honduran, or a Haitian, or a Syrian refugee. Or one of the 85 million people forced from their homes today. But this Lent, let us also confess that we all come from a religion and race of refugees. And let us welcome the aliens of today into our hearts and our homes as we celebrate God’s love and generosity.

Let this be a part of our Lenten renewal.

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About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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