“Inheritance”

Our family traveled to Ireland and Scotland as part of my sabbatical last summer. One drizzly morning in Belfast, Jen and the kids explored the amazing Titanic Museum while I investigated family history at the PRONI (Public Records Office of Northern Ireland). The amount of information in that place was overwhelming; I was completely lost and confused trying to use the catalogue. Eventually, I found a file on the Dobbins, a branch of my family who lived in Annaclone, a township in what is now Northern Ireland. The staff brought me a large manila envelope. I pulled out a yellowed pile of hand-written letters and hand-drawn family trees along with a copy of a book about one Dobbins relative who was a Presbyterian Minister. Annaclone isn’t far from Belfast, so we were able to spend some time that same afternoon combing through churchyards and gazing out over the rolling green hills my ancestors called home. During those few hours at the PRONI, I was filled with a sense of wonder and gratitude. I thought about how relatives I would never know had carefully saved these items in the drawer of a desk or a box in a musty attic and then brought them to this place for safekeeping. And I thought about how the people of Northern Ireland had created the PRONI to preserve these ordinary bits of history, and what a gift that is to me, and others whose families have migrated across the ocean.

Inheritance is complex. It’s a mixture of biology and culture. We inherit what is saved and passed along from generation to generation. And we inherit what is forgotten or lost, intentionally or unintentionally. Inheritance is the deep-in-our-bones (and our genes) instincts and traumas and it’s the immediacy of how our family systems worked in our most formational years. We have inherited ingenuity, resilience, generosity. We have inherited heart problems, depression, and addiction. We have inherited values, patterns of communication and ways of thinking. Some of us know the names and stories of our ancestors. Some of us will never know those things for a variety of reasons—closed adoptions, family tragedies, violent disruptions like the slave trade.

What is your particular experience of inheritance? Let’s take just a moment to reflect on that. As Christians, we have roots in the Jewish tradition. Today’s text from Deuteronomy focuses on the centrality of the law. The law, in Judaism, is much more than a set of rules. It is the means by which the people cultivate a relationship with God. Through the giving of the Ten Commandments and the hundreds of instructions for daily life in the books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, God shows love for the people. The people in turn show their love for God through their obedience. Ultimately, though keeping the law is a duty, it is also the source of joy, the entry point for a sustaining intimacy with God.

“Hear O Israel . . .” This is a call to listen, listen in that place within ourselves where God’s spirit intertwines with our spirits. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” If the law is central to Judaism, this verse is the heart of the heart of the law. It is a kind of positive restatement of the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me.” Biblical scholar Brent Strawn explains that the language the sh’ma uses is a bit hard to translate into English. He thinks that the word rendered “heart” is closer to “mind”; that “soul” means “self”; and “might,” he says: “could be taken . . . as implying the love of God with one’s ‘stuff,’ or property, as much as with one’s strength or capacity.”[1] The upshot; however, is that we are commanded to love God with everything we are and with everything we have.

Of course, we stand on tricky ground as Christians claiming an inheritance rooted in Judaism. Though Jesus was fully Jewish, our own connection to the Jewish faith and people is marred by a history of violent anti-Semitism. Our interpretations of the Hebrew scriptures have been rooted in Christian supremacy and simple greed. Consider how the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy begins: Moses says to the people: “Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that the Lord your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy.” There’s certainly a sense in these verses, and in many other places in the Hebrew Bible, that God sanctioned the bloodshed required for the people to occupy a land that belonged to others. But we also hear in the scriptures that the chosen-ness of Israel, their unique relationship with God, is not just for their own sake, but also for the sake of the world. In Genesis, God tells Abram: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. . . . In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:2-3) Blessed to be a blessing. That was the intention. The real divine plan.

However, the way that we Christians have interpreted and used this tradition of a chosen people and a promised land has had an incredibly destructive impact. The doctrine of discovery, manifest destiny, American exceptionalism—these concepts are all distilled from this basic biblical narrative. And they have provided the philosophical, moral and legal basis for centuries of colonialism, slavery, and genocide. This inheritance gets personal when I consider my family’s farm. That’s where those ancestors from Annaclone, together with the McBride relatives and the Rittgers from Germany, landed and took root. In the mid 1800s, the US Government forced the Sauk and Mesquakie people out of central Iowa to make room for my ancestors. The government paid them eleven cents an acre for the land they lived in deep relationship with, the land that gave them life and made them who they were.[2] That’s approximately $3.55 today. Now developers are eager to buy that land, and they’re offering my dad and his siblings more than $30,000 an acre.

In our past, there is much goodness. Those who came before us have given us many gifts. And the same time, these ancestors have also left us a troubling spiritual inheritance. Their actions have badly frayed our ability to connect to the sacred in creation and ourselves. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the whole world is at the point of crisis, because of the ethos of exploitation and theft we have inherited. Peter Leshack, who contributes an occasional opinion column in the Star Tribune, wrote recently about our spiritual inheritance of a capitalism that assumes the possibility of limitless growth and which refuses to acknowledge that earth’s resources are a “commons” that belong to us all. He says:

We all share the water, air, soil and climate that are the source of wealth, but did not             tally them into the balance sheets. Our prosperity has been borrowed from the                       commons and heavily subsidized by assigning little or no monetary value to the                     atmosphere, the hydrological cycle, keystone species, etc. Payment is due. [3]

So, where is there hope?

I believe that it is possible to reclaim our faith tradition. I believe that those of us who have inherited a corrupt Christianity are being called toward something new. I believe that we are on the cusp of a spiritual renewal—an awakening that encompasses all that we are and all that we have. I believe that we have an opportunity to repair the harm of our history in both a material and spiritual way. The tension between Jesus and the religious authorities in Jerusalem feels very contemporary to me. Two different versions of Judaism were competing for the peoples’ loyalty, just as two different types of Christianity are at odds today. For me, Jesus’ way interpreting and claiming his Jewish identity is a model. He teaches us that what we inherit from our Jewish roots is the centrality of law, and the law is a call to love God with everything we have and everything we are. And, as Jesus adds (from the book of Leviticus) loving ourselves and our neighbors is the logical and natural outgrowth of this love for God. Love, in this sense, means obedience. What we are to obey is not some external authority, but our own heart, the deepest truth of who we are.

We belong to God.

We hold God’s wisdom and power within us.

We are blessed to be a blessing. Amen.

[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=462

[2] http://www.iptv.org/iowapathways/mypath/indian-removal-iowa

[3] http://www.startribune.com/two-cheers-for-a-mixed-economy/492218681/