I want to begin this morning with some words from the Hebrew Bible—and specifically, from the Book of Deuteronomy.
It may sound long after a moment, but stick with it. See if it resonates with you.
“For 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. 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 wildernesswith 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” (Deuteronomy 8:7-18).
Well…allow the preacher to say there is some real preaching going on in this passage.
But what I find so powerful about it is how it speaks to a particular moment in the life of God’s people – this moment when at long last, they are about to enter the Promised Land.
It’s been a time of incredible privation, stretching over a generation.
In fact, it’s been bad enough that at more than a few moments along the way, God’s people have even found themselves thinking about turning around and going back to into bondage as, perhaps, in the end, the easier option.
But that’s all behind them now.
At last, they have come to this moment, when the goodness of the Promised Land is stretched before them, and they’re like tourists off the bus, looking up at the skyscrapers of Manhattan for the very first time.
It is the moment they have all been waiting for.
And yet Moses, their leader, who knows them so well, recognizes that it is a moment that is full of danger as well as promise.
Because Moses sees that it’s the moment when the people may start forgetting God–forgetting the hard-won lessons they have learned about what it is to be faithful—forgetting that the powers and skills they command are not simply for their own flourishing, but for service to God, and neighbor, and even all Creation.
The line between blessing and temptation is a blurry one, and as God’s people enter this new land that they have been promised, Moses sees that are stepping right into that ambiguity.
And at this moment, as they stand before the grand vista of the Promised Land, he knows that he will not be with them—that his own journey will be ending there, on the far shore of freedom.
What happens now will be between them and God.
But a little bit later, he imagines some of the challenges of their coming life together, and he warns them, “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:19).
What he means is, “remember.”
When you see the broken and the weary—remember. When you see the hungry and the thirsty—remember. When you see the naked and the stranger—remember.
Because right up to this very moment of our standing here, looking at the Promised Land, that’s who we’ve been.
What makes us God’s people is not simply where we’ve ended up, but everything we have been through.
Whatever we are poised to become, we are only going to get there by remaining true to who it is that we have been.
That’s what Moses is saying.
We’ll come back to him in a moment.
First, let’s think about this morning’s Gospel, and how it comes at a similar moment in the life and ministry of Jesus.
With his own death not far away, and with his disciples in tow, hurrying along behind him, Jesus walks the streets of Jerusalem almost for the last time as a free man.
And so he tells them this story about the sheep and the goats, and he insists that it is how we care for the least among us that shows the true depth of our faith.
He imagines the last day, when the final trumpet sounds and the final roll is called, and he says,
“Then the king will say to those at his right hand,‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25:34-35).
To me, it’s a moment that bears a tremendous resemblance to that moment when Moses looked out with God’s people on the Promised Land…because in both cases, God’s people are being asked to remember.
With as much as we have, with all the promise that abides within each one of us, have we found ways to help others—to reach out—to serve the greater good, as God would so clearly have us do—or have we fallen short of those enduring expectations?
Because that is what it looks like to remember.
Last winter, maybe you saw the remarkable series of short video clips put out by a group raising awareness around homelessness.
In the videos, people from typical circumstances were asked to dress more or less along the lines of someone sleeping outdoors, and to sit on the street with a sign asking for change.
The twist was, the volunteers were placed outside the office or the apartment building or the gym where someone close to them—a parent, or a sister, or a close friend—would be certain to encounter them.
What happened was, of course, that there were some people who could look in the face of their own sister, thinly disguised, and have no moment of recognition, while there were others who saw the face of their beloved half a block away and came running.
Some of us look at the face of need, and the face of loneliness, the faces of confusion and brokenness and sickness, the faces of infirmity and immaturity…some of us look at those faces, and what they see in each one is not someone whom God has left behind, unblessed and unimportant.
They see the face of their beloved.
The faces of our grandmothers and grandfathers.
The face of Jesus.
That’s what it is to remember.
It’s not so much seeing our beloved and imagining them as an outcast.
As Moses and Jesus would have it, to remember is to see the outcast, and being able to see in them someone we might love. As someone already loved by God—and always loved by God—as our foremothers and forefathers so clearly were.
As we in our own moments of brokenness and loss so clearly were and are.
What makes us God’s people is not where it is that we end up, it’s what we’ve learned from everything that we’ve been through. How that has shaped who it is that we’ve become.
Will we remember what it is like to be on this long, great journey.
And what is abundance? Maybe it’s actually being able to see that. To remember that.
Because if you can see Jesus in the face of human need, if you can see the star of the story in any one of his many disguises, then you see God everywhere.
It is to remember who we are, and where we have come from, and to greet all people as fellow pilgrims.
This week, as we reckon with what it is to be thankful, and what it is to remember, may we recognize that the line between blessing and temptation remains blurry for us, too.
But this morning, Jesus promises us that as we live out our gratitude, remembering that God is the source of all good things, we will find God, and enter into God’s promises, not once, but over and over again.
We will see him standing on every corner, and see his love in every face, and we enter the Kingdom with joy and thanksgiving, remembering Him who always remembers us.