Oct 13th | The Reverend Kevin Scott Fleming | Deuteronomy 8:11-18
There were certain expectations of those of us who grew up in small towns. If you are of a certain age, you will remember that, long before the internet and social media, if you got into some mischief of one kind or another, when you arrived home, your parents already knew all about it. No Facebook or Twitter. Neighbors. Neighbors would see what you were up to and report it to your parents. It’s like they had their own 4G network. We called it a “party line.” Google it.
In a small town, you were expected to always do your best. A job half done was not done at all. Work was seen as a noble thing. The church of the small town endorsed the idea. We sang hymns about working, “Work for the Night Is Coming,” “Come Labor On,” “Revive Thy Work, O Lord,” “Let Us Work and Pray Together.” The Protestant work ethic was alive and well in the small town of my youth.
And in my small town, there was something of an unspoken commandment, that - even if you went away for college - you were expected to come back and build your life in that small town. People who went off to college and didn’t come back were held suspect. The assumption was that while off at school, a person must have gotten into some kind of trouble and they were ashamed to come back and face the music.
So, now you know why I don’t go back too often. I went off to college, off to seminary, became the worst thing in the world you could become - a “liberal” - and it is assumed that I am ashamed to show my face. Preachers and hometowns have a rocky relationship going way back.
In my small hometown, as in many like it, those who became successful and rich were also held suspect. Garrison Keillor once remarked that it was impossible to get rich in a small town. There were too many people watching.
Show up in a new car downtown and the comments went along the lines of, “that’s a fancy looking new car. That must have set you back quite a bit.” They weren’t interested in hearing about how much the car actually cost. They were more interested in finding out where you got the money to pay for it and how.
It didn’t matter what you did. The president of the bank, the funeral director, the dentist, the doctor, the school principal - if they started living a little larger than the rest of the population, they must be up to something nefarious. Suspicion was a full-time affliction in my town.
When I was getting ready to go off to college, one of the women of my church, a dear woman, pulled me aside and said something to me I will never forget. With a sternness in her voice that I had never really heard, she admonished me with these words: “don’t forget where you come from.” I confess to being shocked. “Don’t forget where you come from.” The implication was, “don’t get too big for your britches and forget that we know exactly who you are.”
Well, I did get too big for my britches, but I’m shrinking back into them these days. However, I can assure you, and I can assure her if she is able to hear me in the heavenly realms, that I have never forgotten where I come from.
In essence, that message was the message Moses preached to the people of Israel. Standing on the threshold of the Promised Land, a land he himself would not enter, Moses reminded the people not to forget where they came from.
Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God,
by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances,
and his statutes which I am commanding you today. (vs. 11)
“Don’t forget where you come from.”
[It was] the Lord your God, who brought you out of
the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery,
who led you through the great and terrible wilderness,
an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions.
He made water flow for you from flint rock,
and fed you in the wilderness with manna… (vss. 14-16)
“Don’t forget where you come from.” Don’t forget how God set you free. Don’t forget that it was God who accompanied you and provided for you - through the desert - providing water and nourishment. Don’t forget. Don’t you dare forget. “Don’t forget where you come from.”
Old Moses knew the human character pretty well. Moses knew our tendency to fall into the amnesia of success. Nothing so completely erases memory like success. Moses knew that. He warned the people,
When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God…Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” (vss.12-14, 17)
The Bible is replete with stories of people in sticky situations, who cry out to God, and God answers them. Then, when things are rosy and fine, the people completely forget what God has done for them. Have you heard that story before? Have you lived that story?
Nothing so completely erases the memory like success. Nothing leads to amnesia so much as affluence.
Now, the counter argument goes something like:
Wait just a minute! I worked for what I have. I put in long hours.
I broke my back. I never took anything from anyone. I earned
everything I have and no one helped me.
That sounds like a sound and just argument.
But it simply isn’t true. We have short memories - you and I - and we forget that we aren’t the first generation to revel in the blessings of prosperity. We too easily forget that our economic success was built on the backs of those who did not enjoy the level of ease and comfort that we enjoy today. We forget the work of our parents and grandparents who labored far more intensely than we labor to provide a better life for us. We forget the hard labor of farmers and farm workers, who work from dawn into the night to provide food for us. We forget the long-haul truckers who spend days away from family and friends, driving the roads, delivering what we need for our comfortable lives, living in the cabs of their trucks. We forget the forced labor of slaves, brought to this country against their will, and whose back-breaking work and lack of significant compensation helped build the economy from which we all still benefit.
There’s an old saying that goes, “If you see a turtle on a fencepost, you know it didn’t get there by itself.” From our perch atop the fencepost, it is possible to believe that we got there ourselves. But it simply isn’t true. We had a lot of help getting to where we are.
To that end, Moses reminds the people - and reminds us -
Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today. (vss. 17-18)
God has enabled us to enjoy the affluence we enjoy today. God has placed us in this land, at this time, with all of its blessings and benefits. God has led us to this moment when we revel in blessings that would boggle the minds of those who came before us.
Which leads us to the question, “how will we respond?” There seem to be only two choices.
We can forget it all. We can simply erase all memory of God’s involvement in our lives. We can simply choose to do a memory dump of all the blessings, all the joys, all the time when God was with us when we traveled through difficult hours and terrible days. We can claim amnesia.
Or we can remember. We can remember all that God has done. We can remember all those times when life was rich and rewarding, filled with laughter and delight. We can remember when just when we thought we were alone, we were suddenly surrounded by a circle of caring friends and family. We can remember those moments when we thought we had come to a dead end, only to discover there was a way out of that moment and into a new and promising possibility. We can remember all that God has done.
And then our remembering takes the form of action. Later this month, you will be asked to make a financial commitment for our 199th year as a congregation. With your commitments in hand, we can responsibly plan for our mission and ministry in 2020. Our remembering leads to action - action expressed in faithful generosity.
“Don’t forget where you came from.” Don’t let affluence lead to amnesia.
Remember. Remember all that God has done for you.
And give thanks. For now and evermore. Amen.