When I graduated from high school, my parents cooked a special meal for a family celebration. After dinner, they presented me with two gifts. The first was a set of luggage. The card that went with the luggage read, “Bon voyage! Have a wonderful adventure!” And the second gift was a signet ring with our family crest engraved on it. The card that went with the ring read: “And don’t forget who you are and where you come from!”
They were really wonderful gifts, just right for someone just stepping out into the world. But I was so ready to get out there on my own, living my own life, that at the time, I didn’t really appreciate what they had done for me with those gifts. That would come later.
Over the next several years, in ways that seemed pretty dramatic at the time (but which I now recognize fall squarely in the spectrum of plain old stupid human stuff), I did my best to lose track of who I was and where I’d come from. Probably a certain amount of that is just part of growing up. But even if it is, lost is still lost.
The amount of time Jesus took to tell us about things getting lost makes me wonder if ‘getting lost’ isn’t something he knows is going to happen to all of us and probably with some regularity: we have erred and strayed like lost sheep we admit in the traditional confession. It’s certainly a major theme in the Bible: us getting lost – one way or another, and God finding us – one way or another.
The backstory to the story of the giving of the Ten Commandments is God’s people forgetting who they were and where they come from. And not through bad choices or any particular moral failing. Mostly because this world is glorious, yes, but also one we can get lost in.
You know the backstory, I bet. It’s a story we learn in Sunday school. On the way to God keeping his promises to the Children of Israel to bless all the nations of the world through them, Jacob and his great, large sprawling family ran into hard times. There was a famine in the land, so they all packed up and headed down to Egypt where there was plenty of food. They landed on their feet and grew and prospered. In fact, they grew so much – in numbers and in wealth – that the leader of Egypt, with the title of Pharoah, who insisted that the world revolve around him, got nervous about them. He got so nervous that he eventually rounded up all the sons and daughters of Jacob, confiscated their property, took away their identity papers, and made them slaves of the empire. They became a commodity to keep the machinery of Pharoah’s economy and cult worship of him humming along smoothly. And this went on for 400 years. Four hundred years of captivity for God’s holy people, Pharaoh after Pharaoh after Pharaoh.
As time went by, year after year, generation after generation, they forgot about being God’s people with a holy calling to be the ones through whom God would bless the whole world. Eventually, as far back as anyone could remember, they had been the personal property of Pharoah, with no idea that that would ever or could ever change. Their mothers and fathers were slaves, their children were slaves, and their children’s children would be slaves, too.
God’s children got lost and forgot who there were. They forgot they belonged to God, not Pharaoh.
You don’t actually have to be enslaved by some kind of Pharoah to suffer the same sort of fate. I remember an uncle of mine saying to me once with a kind of quiet desperation, “As far as I can tell, all I am to anybody is a checkbook. That’s the way people see me… my wife, my kids, my friends. That’s all I am.” And then he said, “I’m a person too. I am,” as if he were trying to convince himself. We were nowhere near the Nile River, but Pharoah’s shadow was heavy on my uncle that day. Or, I remember a conversation with an older woman years ago who said, “Who am I? Not that anyone seems to care, but I’m the one who washes the clothes and cooks the meal and makes the bed and keeps the house clean and runs everyone else’s errands. Who am I? Is that a question I’m even allowed to answer? I’m not sure I’m allowed to be a person.”
There are lots of ways we get lost and forget who we are and there’s always a Pharoah out there ready to capitalize on that.
I ran across an old newspaper clipping the other day that I’d saved in a folder. It’s the story of a man, a convicted murderer, in prison for the rest of his life. The story describes a pilot program in the prison where stray dogs who have come to the end of their stay in a local pound are paired with inmates. The idea is that the prisoners become their trainers for a period of a few months. Their job is to try to socialize the castaway dogs and help them find good homes.
It’s a story of the redemption that comes through remembering who you are. The inmates are people who in many ways have lost the right to be persons. I suspect that they have to forget that they are people in order to survive. They belong to Pharoah.
But apparently these castaway dogs can change that. One inmate who was picked to receive a dog said, “I was worried because I thought guys would think I was soft, and I was afraid for the dog’s safety.” But when he got to his cellblock the men gathered around. They seemed afraid to get too close, to show that they cared about something. The inmate put the puppy on the ground, and she started to run and jump like puppies do. The other men instinctively laughed and reached out to touch her. When the man who was considered the coldest and most hateful one of the block dropped to the floor and rolled around, laughing, with the pup, everyone knew it was going to be OK.
The same worried inmate said, “I didn’t think I had any humanity left in me. But when I received one of the first dogs in the program, that brindle boxer pup named Brin, I fell in love as soon as they laid her in my arms.”
This man will always be a prisoner and because of his own deeds. But he was given a way to remember that he was more than a prisoner.
God knows how easily his children can forget who they are and where they come from and get lost. So, after breaking Pharaoh’s strangle hold and drawing them through the waters of the Red Sea, God gathers them at the foot of Mount Sinai, and there God gives them their identity papers. He inscribes with his own hand words to show us how to be human the way he created us to be, to be his children.
Then God spoke all these words [saying], I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, you shall have no other gods before me.
God didn’t deliver the children of Israel from bondage just to turn the tables on Pharaoh. God’s covenant with them, bound in the Ten Commandments, is for them to be something different – not just another rich and powerful kingdom. There are too many Pharaohs as it is. They and we are to be something different, God’s own peculiar treasure out of all the world through which the lost are found.
There is a technical liturgical word used to describe Christian worship. The word is anamnesis. It the opposite of amnesia. Anamnesis means remembering what you’ve forgotten about who you are.
We do not belong to Pharaoh or any of the other little gods of power or wealth or social standing or the latest fad on Tik Tok, all the Pharaoh’s who want to take God’s place in our hearts. Sunday by Sunday we come to remember what we may have forgotten: we are children of God made in God’s image, bound to him by a sacred promise sealed by the blood of Jesus, to heal the world. So, in this week before us, bon voyage! Have a wonderful adventure. And don’t forget who you are or where you come from. Amen.