Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Temptations of Milk and Honey

Deuteronomy 8:11-20
October 16, 2011
William G. Carter

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. 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, 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 that your ancestors did not know, to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good. 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. If you do forget the LORD your God and follow other gods to serve and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish. Like the nations that the LORD is destroying before you, so shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of the LORD your God.

We continue our way through the desert. The way is barren. The journey is treacherous. The road is unpaved. Israel has left slavery in Egypt. Pharoah is long out of sight. The familiarity of affliction is replaced by the fear of the unknown. The people of faith are on their way to a Promised Land, even if they cannot yet see it.

            No wonder the people of Israel told these stories. No wonder the Christian church kept these stories and told them as well. The life of faith is a pilgrimage away from dark shadows of slavery and moving toward the place of great promise. We put Pharoah in our rear view mirror and leave behind the places of pain. We strain to see what good land God preparing just out of sight.

            Just a few verses before our text, Moses reminds us of the goal:

The LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper. You shall eat your fill and bless the LORD your God for the good land that he has given you.

            Now, that’s a destination worthy of our hope! Elsewhere that’s called “green pastures, still waters.” It’s where we want to move, where we want to go. Like those advertisements that come from the travel agents. I don’t know where you want to go, but I have seen pictures of where I would like to travel: the ice-blue fjords of Norway, the sunshine-drenched fields of Tuscany, the great pine forest, the purple mountains. Sign me up, Moses, I would like to go.

            I don’t know if the description of the Promised Land was the carrot on the stick to keep God’s people on the move. Maybe so. Flowing streams, abundant harvests, figs, pomegranates, olives, and honey; that sounds so appealing. All the bread you can eat. All the wine you can drink. That’s quite a sales pitch! And the tag line comes right out of Psalm 23: “You will lack nothing.” That’s enough to keep Israel moving for forty years!

            But no sooner does Moses say it when he adds a cautionary word: when you get there, he says, don’t forget about God. When your belly is full, when your money is multiplied, when you move into the big house on the hill, do not forget about God. That is the warning. And it’s a pretty good warning.

            You see, it is one thing to be tempted in Egypt. When you are enslaved, you are tempted to forget your dignity. The hours are long, the tasks are heavy. Every ounce of energy is directed toward carrying your great burden and getting through the day. It is all you can do. Life is not your own in Egypt. You are shackled to the forces that keep you down. Slavery demeans you. It pushes you to serve without benefit or blessing. The temptation is to start believing that is all there is.

            It is one thing to be tempted in Egypt, and it’s another thing to be tempted in the wilderness. In the wilderness, confusion sinks in. You don’t always know if you are headed in the right direction. The pillar of fire, the column of smoke – those are helpful, if not a bit vague. When you are in the wilderness, you may be free but you might not have everything you need. Temptation comes in the shape of worry, of fear, of doubting that there really is a Promised Land. People find themselves in the wilderness of illness and worry if they will ever feel better. Or they stumble into the wilderness of unemployment and doubt they will have anything to eat. It’s better than Egypt; at least you are free. But you are tempted to doubt that God is paying attention.

            There is temptation in Egypt and temptation in the wilderness. But today Moses warns of temptation once we reach the Promised Land. In the Promised Land, you might never notice how your soul is at risk. “Take care,” he warns. “Take care that you do not forget God.”

            David Goetz lives outside of Chicago in perfect suburban town. How does he describe it? “Seven-year-old birthday parties in which the party favor your son scores on the way out costs twice as much as the gift he brought; the one-ton SUV in the driveway; the golden retriever with a red bandana romping with two children in the front yard; the Colorado winter vacations; the bumper sticker trumpeting ‘My daughter is an honor roll student at Hubble Middle School.’”[1]

            He and his family go to the perfect church. The worship services are lively and there’s always a lot going on: another study group, another stint on a church committee, another year as the youth coordinator, another mission tip to a Third World country. All of these are good things. The church has good music. The people look just like him. It’s everything you want in a church. Just one thing missing: God.

            Everybody is running so fast, doing so much. Sometimes he looks around and wonders, “Why are they here? Why are they really here?”

            You know, it’s a pretty good question. I have lost count of how many letters of recommendation I have written for college applications, honor societies, and the like. All these kids climbing the mountain of success, many getting into the university of first choice – which is at least two hours away from here. Maybe they return at Christmas, slap me on the back, and say, “What are you still doing here? You ought to move to Boston!”

            A few of them come back to get married in the old home church. They come in early, introduce me to the people they love, talk about their dreams. We joke and laugh and catch up. Then I ask the question, “Where are you going to church?” Silence. Awkward silence. I smile benignly and wait them out. “Well, Rev. Bill, we can’t find a minister like you…” (That’s code language for “We haven’t looked very hard.”)

“But after we get married, and settled down, and pursue our careers for a while, we hope to have children. Maybe we can bring them back to get baptized here. Wouldn’t that be great?” I will look at them with love, and wonder, sometimes out loud, have they forgotten God?

            It can happen. Moses knew it can happen. Moses knew it is possible for a parent to drive kids home from soccer, pass by a church, and one of the kids says, “Mom, what’s that building?” She says, “It’s a church.”

The daughter says, “What’s a church?” Her brother says, “That’s where we have to go on Christmas Eve before we can home and open packages.”

And she says, “Oh, I love Christmas! I already have a lot of things on my list.”

Is that far-fetched? No. According to the latest demographics that I have seen, on this given day, twenty-two percent of the people who live in this zip code are going to a church or place of worship. Twenty-two percent; used to be higher.

The really interesting thing is about forty-three percent tell pollster George Gallup that they attend church every week. I wonder why twenty-one percent of the people are lying. Maybe they feel guilty. Of course, that doesn’t even touch the fifty-seven percent who don’t go and don’t care. When asked about his lack of church attendance, one man confessed to the news reporter, “I outgrew the need for all of that.” Now he stays home . . . to worship himself, I think.

You know how many narcissists it takes to change a light bulb? One. He holds the light bulb upside down and the world revolves around him.

            Is this good for us? Is this healthy for us? In a world where people scream at one another on news shows in order to make their point? In a nation where elected officials would shut down their offices rather than pursue the public good? What they are saying is, “It’s all about me.” “Look at me.” “Give me my fifteen minutes of fame, and then give me a million dollar book deal to tell my story…and then give me a ghostwriter since I don’t know how to write.”

There is something toxic about a society that focuses only on money, stuff, busy-ness, and achievement. I say this because it’s true. In one recent year, I knew four young adults in our community who spent time in drug and alcohol rehab. There were probably many more, but families tend to be quiet about this sort of thing. I began to wonder, what is it about affluence that could be so deadly? Are Mom and Dad too busy to be attentive? Are Junior and Missy too over-programmed? Is there moral pollution in the air?

I came to believe it is something far deeper. These kids live in a world on Red Bull and amphetamines. Everything is jacked up and fast. Nothing is pondered as they avoid boredom and race on to the next hollow pursuit. They are given trophies for activities where they merely show up, not because they actually competed and won anything. They are told to keep busy, just like their parents. Our world over-amplifies their individualism, telling them to proclaim their self-importance rather than give themselves to any matter of actual significance.

And then they come to know, at the center of it, that the money, the stuff, and the busy-ness are hollow pursuits. That creates despair. In one last desperate attempt to fill the holes in their souls, they dump in whatever substance they can find. This is what they do, when they have so much.

“Don’t forget about God.” This is Moses’ warning. Even if you can’t see God, stop and remember that so much of life comes as a gift. That’s how the good things come to us – as gifts, as gifts worthy of deep thanks. The first door to a deep faith is the door of gratitude. We walk through it as we affirm how little of life begins with ourselves.

We remember, too, that wherever we locate ourselves – whether enslaved in Egypt, wandering in the wilderness, or enjoying the Promised Land – that we never outrun the need for a Power greater than ourselves. That this Power is personal, and that it is good – these are potent revelations. True wisdom begins with an awareness of how small we are and how great God is. God’s greatness is in caring for each of us in our smallness.

            In the church, this is the truth to which we point. God is greater than us, more loving and forgiving than us. And that’s good news. This is what gathers us as a church. This is the heart of a faith that can grow.
            Now I understand that growing your faith is not quite same as serving on a committee. Committees have their purposes. They teach us patience, they help us develop skills in forgiveness, and sometimes they even get things done. All of this is good. For these reasons alone, everybody should serve on a committee.

But we have to always keep in mind that the church, at its heart, is about God. We learn about God, we talk about God, we try together to join God in doing the work that God most wants to get done in the world. And God is at the center of it. Right in the middle of all things! We must never forget this or take it for granted.

For the last few meetings of our elders, I have tried out a suggestion that I read in a book. If the church is focused on God’s business, then it has to discern what God wants the church to do. So instead of saying, “All in favor, vote by saying ‘aye,’” I started asking, “All who believe this to be the will of God, say yes.” It’s been a hoot. All of sudden, the action on last month’s financial statement becomes a matter of holy purpose. Or the decision to give money and volunteers to assist flood victims becomes something that we really think God wants to get done.

It’s not a gimmick. It matters deeply that we perceive God to be active in the most mundane of daily matters, that we trust we are here because God was here first.

These days, rather than ask that blushing couple from Boston, “How did you meet,” I might be more inclined to ask, “How do you think God brought the two of you together?” I ask and let them squirm. Usually they don’t squirm very much at all, and seem delightfully surprised that somebody asked the question.

We live in a time when so many forces would squeeze God out of our lives. There can be no more important work than pausing right in the middle of things to ask where and how we have seen God in the moments of each day. Do you ever do this? The ancients called it the prayer of “examen,” the prayer often at the end of day when we examine our lives for traces of grace.

God’s love is largely unseen when it happens, but simply stopping to ask the question can train us to remember God, the living God, the God who brings us out of slavery, the God who leads us through the barren places, the God who is significantly more important than all the gifts of a Promised Land.

Whatever else you do, says Moses, don’t ever forget about God.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

[1] David Goetz, Death By Suburb: How to Keep the Suburbs From Killing Your Soul (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2006) 5.

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