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“The Command, as Invitation”

Katherine Todd
Deuteronomy 26:1-11, 13-15
Luke 6:38

 

Deuteronomy 26:1-11, 13-15

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.” When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this 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. 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.

 When you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year (which is the year of the tithe), giving it to the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows, so that they may eat their fill within your towns, then you shall say before the Lord your God: “I have removed the sacred portion from the house, and I have given it to the Levites, the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows, in accordance with your entire commandment that you commanded me;…

Look down from your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless your people Israel and the ground that you have given us, as you swore to our ancestors—a land flowing with milk and honey.”

Luke 6:38

…Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.


 

This passage from Deuteronomy is interesting.  It talks about the tithe – giving the first fruits of one’s labors to God.  Now it isn’t as though they just set baskets out before an invisible God and left them there, no.  Their gifts to God were to be given to the Levites – the family of Israelites charged with teaching about God and leading the people in their relationship with God – to the aliens – those outsiders residing among them with little means, acceptance, or connection – to the widows – those women not permitted to work who had lost the man in their lives – and to orphans – obviously the children without parents and therefore a means of survival.

So their gifts to God were to go to those in professional service of God and to those in need in their communities.  All of these groups were those who could not own land, hold jobs, farm the land, etc.  All of these groups were those whose calling or circumstance in society made them dependent on the charity of others.

These gifts were the gifts of their labors.  They were the produce of the good land God was giving them to inhabit and tend.  But it wasn’t just any produce.  It was the first produce.

 

There is something holy and sacred about giving of one’s first fruits.  First fruits are long awaited.  They are anticipated.  They are watched and waited for.  Giving thanks and remembering the Giver of these good things is a holy and life-giving act.  And we are called to give thanks first, at the start.  We are not to wait till we have forgotten God’s work.  We are not to wait until we are satiated and feel secure.  We are not to give of our leftovers.

No, we are called to give of our first fruits.

We are called to give as this holy act of remembrance and gratitude.

We are called to remember that all we have has come from God

And to remember our calling to care for the outcast, the disenfranchised, the needy among us.  We are called to use these gifts to provide for those who serve us and our communities in remembering and being still before our God.

And we are called to do this first,

Before we know what will be,

…An act of trust.

 

God’s commandment to the people to bring their first fruits to God puts remembrance, gratitude, and trust at the center of their lives.  With each new season’s produce, they come before God to remember God’s deliverance and generous provision, and to make loving provision for those dependent on God for their daily bread.

 

What a loving commandment.

I imagine many have looked upon the tithe and giving to God similarly to how they’ve looked at paying taxes or paying for a service.  It may have felt like an obligation, or perhaps a nagging guilt.  But in this commandment is the wisdom of a parent, a parent who knows that we will never be happy and whole without gratitude.  It is the wisdom of a loving parent that invites us into a ritual of remembering all that the Lord has done for us.  It is the wisdom of a loving parent that re-frames our labors and energies in the perspective that God is the one who has given us those skills; given us life and health; given us the air we breath, the land we walk, the earth we till and enjoy.  It is the wisdom of a loving parent that invites us to pay our gratitude forward in caring for others.  It is the wisdom of a loving parent that reminds us we are not whole until all are made whole.  It is the wisdom of a loving parent that challenges us to keep trusting God into the future, so that we don’t loose our peace in that endless fight to go and get ahead and succeed.

For those of us who hear and head this call to bring our first fruits, this is a holy and life-giving act.  It is truly an act of faith.  And in it we are bringing in the Kingdom of God – the world as God intends it to be – both in our lives and in the world around us.  When we give of our first fruits to God, we invite the Kingdom of God into lives and into our communities.

 

And how merciful is this commandment.

Notice the first sentence:  “When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you… and possess it, and settle in it…”  WHEN…

Unlike a tax that pays little head to where you are in the journey, this commandment is not one driven by greed.  It is not so God can store up or take from us.  It is not a commandment that disregards our station and place in life.

No these gifts are to be given in proportion to what we have received!  AND we are not asked to give from our emptiness but from what we have already been given.

God does not place this command on them while they are traveling as nomads, wandering through the desert.  No.  God gives them this command for their season of arriving, their season of provision, their season of receiving God’s good gifts.

It is precisely when we receive those long-awaited promises, that provision, those gifts, those breaks, that we become vulnerable to many sins.

It is in those moments that we are most tempted to believe that we’ve gotten there on our own.

It is in those moments that we can forget, by whose grace and mercy, we have arrived.

It is in those moments that we are most tempted to cling to the gifts and to forget the Giver.

It is in those moments that we are tempted to ask more of mere things, that they can ever give us – such as happiness, security, peace…

That God calls us back to gratitude.

 

And God’s invitation, God’s command, is precisely what the Doctor ordered.  It is precisely what we need, so that as we move forward in this new season of abundance, we do not forget who we are and whose we are.  We do not forget those on whose shoulders we stand.  And we continually, in each season, actively remember that all good things come from God.  And we remember that our future, as was the past, is ever in God’s hands.

We remember that God is God, and we are not. 

For peace and happiness, joy and security cannot be earned or bought.  The best gifts in life, come when we remember, give thanks, walk in faith, and pay it forward.

 

God’s command to bring our first fruits, is our loving parent’s invitation to the good life,

the promised land,

…the Kingdom of God on earth. 

“Our Beloved Saints”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Proverbs 27:17
Hebrews 12:1-3

Proverbs 27:17

Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another.

Hebrews 12:1-3

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,  looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.

 


 

My grandfather.  My mother’s father.  He was a Presbyterian Minister out in Texas where they lived.  When he was ordained, his presbytery was so small that he was elected to serve as Presbytery Executive in the same meeting, so he signed his own ordination papers!

He liked to tell stories of his ministry – how he’d (or more accurately God had) held together a church deeply divided by listening to everyone each Sunday after church.  I appreciated these stories.  They told me his values.  They told me that it was more important to be in relationship with one another – sharpened as iron sharpens iron – than to be estranged and separated.

In this way my grandfather deeply shaped my faith development.

 

I also learned from his mistakes.  He was a passionate man, and not being able to discipline his grandchildren made him feel totally disempowered.  So what do we so often do when we feel powerless?  Quite often we unearth other more malignant tactics.   So most of us grandchildren have haunting memories of him taking us off to some hallway, kneeling to our level and hitting his head repeatedly in front of us saying, “Since I cannot spank you, I will spank myself.”  This was his way of trying to deter us from doing things he disagreed with.  Talk about psychologically twisted, this definitely qualified!

But after my grandmother passed away during my 7th grade year in school, my grandfather changed.  She had been the tender and gentle one.  He had been the hard one.  But after she was gone, he softened.  He stopped hitting his head.  He started being tender with us and kind.  He spent more time with us, telling stories.  And finally unbound by fear, we could enjoy him and get to know him.

 

Several years later, I would attend my church summer camp and find that I enjoyed learning and teaching about God, more than any other thing.  I would deliver my very first sermon, drawing from the imagery of Pachelbel’s Cannon.  And members of the church who had nurtured me from the time I was born were approaching me to say they could hear God’s Word in my sermon and hoped I would consider seminary.

Still new to any critical study of the Bible, I had many questions – such as whether or not women should be in ministry.  And I questioned myself, as I was introverted, and I didn’t think that a very suitable quality for a minister.

But like Mary – after giving birth to Jesus and receiving the Shepherd visitors – I treasured these things in my heart and began to ask the questions of my own calling in life.   I began the long road of scripture study and interpretation.

And as my own calling to ministry began to emerge, I came back to my grandfather, who, a product of his time, had always thought it wrong for women to be ministers.  I half-expected him to shame me for this sense of call, but he surprised me.  Instead he told me that he’d been listening to more and more women preach and that he was hearing God speak through them.  They were anointed.  And if God’s Spirit was speaking through them, who was he to say they couldn’t or shouldn’t be ministers.

And in this, my grandfather gave me the greatest example of faith:  the example of a passionate but humble, living, and growing faith.   With a lifetime full of experiences in the world and in the church, he had every reason to say, “this is not the way that things should be done.”  His contemporaries would have judged me in that vulnerable place where I was considering my call.  But instead, he stayed in a position of openness to the Spirit of God.

And when the time came for him to start considering the fate of his worldly possessions, he took me into his small library room – filled on every wall with books from top to bottom – and gave me the gift to his entire library.

 

This man who had been passionately against women in ministry – keeping my grandmother down, who had longed for him to teach her, and forbidding her from speaking on his behalf at church – this man was blessing my calling to ministry in his final years.

And he started downloading all his experiences into me – so that I would learn from him.

He once said, and it was so funny and moving that I wrote it down, “This does not deny you the right to investigate new visions.  Go to it!  Your old grandpa may roll over in his grave by them, but so what!?”

 

I loved that.

He recognized that God was still moving and working and revealing Godself in new ways.  He recognized that he would never have the corner on the truth.  He trusted the Mystery beyond himself.

And this example has been his greatest gift to me.

 

Whatever our paths and families, we ARE indeed surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.  In the chapter before these verses from Hebrews, the writer reviews all the great faith figures.  He is reminding us that we are not alone in this journeyIt is a hard journey, but we are in good company!  The Bible is full of story after story of our ancestors in the faith – who got things beautifully right and terribly wrong sometimes, and yet who were used by God.

We have them, and we have Christ!

We are not alone.  And we can learn from their experiences – both what TO do and what NOT to do.  God has given us a great gift through their lives.

This gift is not meant to call us back to a time that no longer exists.  It is not meant to keep us in a place of nostalgia.  No, the writer of Hebrews reasons that because we are surrounded by this great company of saints who’ve gone before, we run with perseverance.  We press into the living of these days, of our lives, of our journeys of faith – taking encouragement from these saints and direction from Christ, the pioneer and perfector of our faith!

We look back, in order to move more faithfully forward. 

 

And so today, we take this time to remember those in ours and other people’s lives who have strengthened and blessed us on our journeys, and we take time to give thanks for them!

In just a moment I will invite you to walk around the room (as you feel led), reading the stories of these saints, and giving thanks to God in your hearts.

When the music comes to a close, I will invite you to take a stand or a seat near the write ups that speak to you.  And we will come before God in prayer together – giving thanks for those who have shaped our lives.  During that prayer, we will go around the room, in order, speaking out the names of all these saints.

So I invite you now to spend time in holy listening, silently walking and reading, or seated as you like, meditating on these saints who have blessed our lives.  And after about 4-5 minutes, I will call us back together for a prayer and speaking of the names.