Scripture: Deuteronomy 26.1-11

Sandhya Jha

[00:00:00] Hi friends. My name is Sandhya Jha, as you’ve already heard, Disciples of Christ pastor. And I’ll be reading to you from Deuteronomy 26 verses 1 through 11. That’s the lectionary passage for today. And the lectionary, if you haven’t come across it before, is the means by which Lutherans and Episcopals and American Baptists and Presbyterians and Congregationalists and Disciples of Christ and Catholics, all

engage the same texts week by week. The idea of it was to create ecumenical unity so that the church could be having shared experiences across our diverse traditions. So for that reason, I thought it would be good to delve into a passage for this week, from the lectionary, [00:01:00] so that if you have Presbyterian or Methodist or, uh, Disciples or Catholic friends, you can say, Hey, what kind of sermon did you listen to?

And you can trade thoughts. So the lectionary passage for today from Deuteronomy 26, 1 through 11, from the New Revised Standard Version. When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord, your God is giving you,

and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time and say to him today, I declare to the Lord, your God, that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us. [00:02:00] When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord, your God, you shall make the response before the Lord,

your God. A wandering Aramean was my ancestor. He went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien few in number and there he became a great nation mighty and populous. 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. [00:03:00] So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you O Lord have given me.

You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God,then you. Together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house. May God add wisdom to the hearing of this word.

Amen. Will you be with me in an attitude of prayer. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight. Oh, Cura.[00:04:00]

So in the summer of 2019, I took my father’s ashes back to India, to the Ganges river, which is my family’s custom to return the ashes of the deceased to the Ganges that they might come back connected with that sacred water. Now as I was visiting, I was picking my family’s brains about all the stories of our ancestors and my eldest cousin pulled me aside and with great joy said to me, “You do the work of peace.”

He knew that I had founded the Oakland Peace Center where I live. And he said, “I know that you care about peace. Our ancestors cared about peace too. That’s why, although we have lived in Bengal 500 years, you know, that we are originally from Bihar. [00:05:00] 500 years ago, there was a major conflict in “that state.

And we are a peace loving people. And so we left that state so that we could know peace.” And I found two things really interesting about that story. The first was that he was excited for me to get to connect with ancestors who also hated violence and war and conflict. And he was giving me a gift. And the other thing that struck me about that story is,

what we don’t talk about is that my family had someplace to go. I know that in the midst of that war, there were people who died needlessly, civilians who did not have anywhere to go. And while we did not have a lot of money, we [00:06:00] came from enough ancestral wealth, that there were little pockets of land in various places that we could go when things got too bad.

And so my family went from the north of Bihar to the south of Bihar, and then we went to east Bengal and then about 120 years ago, we moved to what is now West Bengal. Otherwise we would have been living in Bangladesh once partition came in 1947. I found myself struck by this because although we have a narrative of not having a lot and coming from the poorest country of the poorest state in that country, we had some place to go when things got bad.

And so I find myself thinking about this lectionary passage and how it acknowledges how [00:07:00] bad things were for the Israelites. There had to be something that caused them to move and become “aliens,” foreigners in the land of Egypt, and then to become such a threat to the Egyptians that they were then enslaved.

And then by the hand of God, and by that great community organizer, Moses, that they were able to escape enslavement. The version of the story here is not that different from the version of the story my cousin told me about our family, that the Lord, our God gave us land as an inheritance to possess and that we should thank God

for the gift of that land. Now, many of us have complicated stories as immigrants and [00:08:00] refugees or the children or grandchildren of immigrants or refugees. My beloved colleague, the Reverend Deb Lee, one of my favorite Asian feminist, uh, activists whose theology is in her engagement with immigration justice.

Deb often talks about how there are refugees political refugees, and that most immigrants are also economic refugees. And I think that that can be true. Colonialism has had such an adverse impact on so many of our countries and created ugly divisions and created disparity of wealth and created

desperation as the wealth of our homelands or our ancestral lands was extracted. Many of us were forced to other lands because [00:09:00] of economic violence. And so this notion of economic refugees has a place in the conversation, that some of us are here because things had gotten so bad at home and often had gotten so bad because of the powers that be playing football with our ancestors’ lives.

That said, there is something about the refugee experience I do not want to diminish. I am really moved by a poem by Warsan Shire, who is of Somali descent, and the poem “Home” starts out, “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark. You only run for the border when you see [00:10:00] the whole city running as well.”

The last line is, “No one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear saying, leave, run away from me now. I don’t know what I’ve become, but I know that anywhere is safer than here.” As Asian and Pacific Islander Americans, we have a diversity of reasons that we have come to this land or that our ancestors have come to this land. And amidst the challenges and struggles that we face,

as I think about my cousin’s moving testimony to my peace loving ancestors, I can’t help but think of something that keeps coming to me as I do work in my own community of Oakland, California. [00:11:00] I keep thinking that privilege is choosing where you live and privilege is choosing where you don’t live. I watched so many people

I love being pushed from place to place because someone else has decided that land is too valuable for them to live on anymore. That’s gentrification in my community. I know beloved friends who do not get to live in their communities with their people, because the demands on them to support their families have forced them to live away from the people in the land that they love

Privilege is choosing where you live and where you don’t live. And it is [00:12:00] heartbreaking to realize that in this country, the Great Migration, when African-Americans left the South and moved to the North and the West. The patterns of migration of that Great Migration did not follow the paths of immigration, where people were being intentional and strategic, but they followed migration paths much more akin to refugees.

Those paths being shaped much more by fleeing violence, danger, terrorism, war.

Privilege is choosing where you live and where you don’t live, rather than fleeing or being forced to stay. And so it makes sense that our [00:13:00] passage from Deuteronomy includes this profound gratitude and this profound thanksgiving and honoring of God for carrying people out of enslavement and into the promised land.

I don’t think you can see it on the screen. But when I join regular Zoom meetings, there’s a message at the bottom. That includes my name, Sandhya, my pronouns, she or they, and my location, occupied Aloni territory. Also known as Oakland, California, but at the encouragement of some of my Black activist friends, I’ve begun acknowledging whose land I’m actually living on.

I was in a meeting not too long ago when a man asked me, “Does that mean you’re an occupier?” [00:14:00] And I would have liked to have a more complex conversation like the one that I know you’re about to have on this subject. But time was short and it wasn’t the purpose of our meeting. And so I said, “Everybody who’s not indigenous is occupying indigenous land.”

This section of the Bible is incredibly complicated to me as someone who didn’t necessarily choose to live here, whose family was pushed here. Because without our family moving here, our family in India couldn’t necessarily have supported themselves. And so my father had been the sacrificial person sent abroad to make sure that our family back home could stay at home, stay where they wanted to stay [00:15:00] and thrive.

I have a beloved copy of the Bible. It’s called The People’s Bible and it includes analysis by great liberation scholars from all over the world. And Deuteronomy’s introduction is written by Frank Yamada. And one of his observations about Deuteronomy is this. He says “Establishing and maintaining cultural identity is a necessary and sometimes problematic business.

There is a fine line between creating group boundaries to preserve a cultural heritage and erecting walls or fences to keep others out.” Dr. Yamada goes on to talk about how important it was to him to be raised with a sense of his cultural identity, even though he’s third [00:16:00] generation Japanese American, sansei, living in this country. He contrasts that with the formation of cultural identity in this country during world war II that labeled Japanese Americans as other.

And leading to the incarceration and concentration camps of Japanese Americans. He says because of this double edged nature of culture, the ability to both include and exclude, it is important to read the themes in Deuteronomy in context, rather than assume them to be universal. The special nature of a place and people in relationship to their God can quickly turn into a rationale for the expulsion or extermination of a foreign other.

I wanted to bring that up because many of my Native [00:17:00] American colleagues who have studied the book of Deuteronomy point out that to them, it is a horrifying book, along with Exodus in many ways. Because the narrative is we came into this land and we occupied it as if there was no one there of value already.

When my Native American friends read Exodus and Deuteronomy, they recognize themselves in the Canaanites and the Moabites, the people who were forcibly pushed off of the land that was “promised” to the Israelites. And so I find myself wondering as somebody in this country, as I look at that passage in [00:18:00] Deuteronomy, is this land our inheritance?

If it’s not too heretical, I want to invite us to try on a different way of engaging this passage.

What if for our generation of Christ followers, some of whom were forced violently off of our land or whose ancestors were forced violently off of their land, for some of us who did come here in pursuit of a better life or whose parents or grandparents did, for some of us who were forced here for the survival of our families or for our own survival.

What if this land [00:19:00] isn’t our inheritance from God? What if today, our inheritance is the opportunity for relationship with the people of this land? What if we get to do Deuteronomy right? What if this is our reincarnation in the same way that my family in India is hoping that my father’s ashes carried to the Ganges give him a reincarnation?

What if this is our chance to, instead of continuing to do harm to the people of this land so that we can thrive on it, instead we listen to the wisdom of greater ancestors and of the God who is the God of all people? [00:20:00] And we take this opportunity to fix Deuteronomy and to give profound gratitude and thanksgiving to God for the opportunity to be in relationship with our indigenous families and to transform our relationship to this sacred land, wherever we are.