Monday, February 22, 2010

Giving God Our First Fruits

This is my sermon from yesterday, based on Deuteronomy 26:1-11. Two facts you should know: the town in which I serve is BIG on sports playing, and our church has a pretty large endowment. Read on...

They say you can tell a lot about people by looking at their checkbooks. I would say you could also learn some things about people by looking at their calendars. Or at the bookmarks on their web browsers. Take a second to think about your checkbook or bank statement, calendar, and if you use the internet, the sites you visit most often. Now think about what that might say to others about you, and whether it’s accurate or not!

I think it would be an interesting exercise to make a list of what is most important in our lives. No limit—doesn’t have to be a top 10—just list out friends, family members, activities, ideas (like justice, peace, wealth) etc., from most important to least (and keep the lists private, lest anyone find out that your dog is higher on your list than your friends). Then, we would make three more lists, under the headings time, money, and energy, and on those lists, we rank how we would like to spend those three resources. Then, after we have these four lists all made up, we would look at how we actually use those resources, and how the lists match up. Something tells me family, friends, God, hobbies or interests and doing good in the world might get a much higher rank than something like “watching TV” and yet I bet the “actual” list might reveal very different priorities.

Do you ever notice that unless we are intentional about how we use resources in our lives, things seem to feel out of our control and we never have the time/money/energy for what we really want and need, the things that deserve our best? Things come up, and all of a sudden we’re scraping the bottom of the barrel on our resources to give to what should be on the top of our list.

Although it’s a law from thousands of year’s ago, today’s reading from Deuteronomy addresses just that, by stressing that God should get some of the first fruits of the harvest. This law is repeated many other places, and it often states that God should get not just any of the first harvest, but the best or choice first fruits. It’s always important to consider that generally if these laws had to be stated, it meant that at least some people were doing just the opposite. When Paul writes that women should be silent in worship, for example, it’s because women were speaking up and stating their opinions. So the fact that the law contains multiple references to giving God the first fruits probably means that at some point, people were eating and selling their harvest, and then taking the leftovers (if there were any) to offer to God. But by giving to God first, it ensures God is recognized and thanked as the provider of the harvest to begin with, and that God is established as the most important part of the people’s lives.

So how does this translate into our lives? What does it mean to make sure God gets our first fruits, and not just whatever we can scrape together from our leftovers?

First, we prioritize. We make God and God’s priorities our top priority. I’m usually not one to refer to dictionary definitions but I thought this one was appropriate. Priority:

“1. the state or quality of being earlier in time, occurrence, etc.” God was there first.

“2. the right to precede others in order, rank, privilege, etc; precedence.” Is anyone going to dispute God’s right to precede anything or anyone else in rank? Probably not.

“3. the right to take precedence in obtaining certain supplies, services, facilities, etc, especially during a shortage.” Well, God gives us life, so I suppose that might give God the right to take precedence in obtaining our “supplies” of time, money, energy, thought, etc, especially when there’s not enough to go around. And

“4. something given special attention.” Being God, I think God probably deserves the most special attention.[1]All these say the same thing as Deuteronomy: God comes first.

A woman moved into a house which had blueberry bushes in the backyard. The first summer, she went out and happily enjoyed plucking the ripe, juicy berries. After a few years, she discovered that the berries that ripened first were always the most plump, juicy, and sweet. As the season wore on, the plants couldn’t produce as much energy, and the berries were smaller and more tart. The same holds true in our lives. The first recipients of our time, labor, and money get the best of us, while subsequent recipients get less and less. God should be our first recipient, given our best fruit, in gratitude, worship and praise for all we’ve been blessed with. No, it’s not easy, especially if it’s not what we’re used to. Budgeting out how much to give to the church and then figuring out where the rest of the money goes, and not the other way around. Getting up a little earlier to have time to pray and read the Bible before going to work. Establishing worship on Sunday mornings as a part of your routine that doesn’t get broken except for illness or unusual circumstances. Ok, I may be getting myself into a lot of trouble here by saying this, but let me just say that of all the conceivable issues I thought I might have to deal with when I came to Longmeadow, “sports” was not on my list. I can’t tell you how many people have complained about the amount of time, energy, and money that go into sports, and how often that conflicts with going to church. Now, I’ll admit that not having kids and not being a big athlete myself when I was younger, so I’m kind of an outsider. However, I have heard how much it bothers people that games and practices are scheduled on Sunday mornings, and how much they would like it if Mike and I and the other Longmeadow Christian clergy could talk to the town and get them to change the schedules back like they used to be, with nothing before noon. I am sorry to disappoint, but it’s not happening. I don’t mean to be flippant about it, but with the exception of mail delivery and most banks, Sundays are basically like any other day. That being said, we are not powerless. We absolutely can tell a coach that our children won’t be at practices or games that interfere with church. They may not understand at first. Neither may our friends when we tell them we can’t stay out too late on Saturdays because we have church in the morning. Guess how well that came across from a young single woman on a Saturday night in New York City. We are quickly reaching a point when practicing Christianity is not the standard societal behavior, and it’s an adjustment to be made from the time when things seemed to revolve around Christian life. But it’s do-able. Just think of it another way. Imagine you get to Heaven and God’s going over your life with you, and She comments, “You know, you didn’t really seem to have much time for me. What was that about?” Could you look God in the face and say, “We had soccer?” Or, “I like to sleep late?”Or imagine God looking at our checkbooks with us. What might He think? We make other things in our lives non-negotiable, why not our commitment to God?

Giving God our first fruits also means putting our trust in God. This is also not always an easy task. It means letting go of our illusion of control, and the fantasy of safety in money and possessions. It is a lot easier (even given the financial events of our recent past) to make ourselves feel secure with investments and savings accounts than to give our first fruits to God and God’s priorities and trust that having done that, God will provide if something happens. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have those things, just that if we are placing a higher priority on growing or maintaining them than on doing God’s ministry in the world, we’re putting our trust in the wrong place. The last verse of our reading today says that after giving of the first fruits, the Israelites were to celebrate with the bountiful gifts of the harvest God had given them and share that bounty with the priestly class and the strangers among them. What we have after giving of our first fruits is not only enough, but a bounty with which to have a party for a whole lot of people!

In the same way, giving our first fruits to God can bring new life and abundance to the rest of the “fruit.” Remember that woman with the blueberry patch? Well, she also found that if she picked those first ripe berries, the other berries on the stem could get the energy they needed to grow plump and juicy as well. If she left the first fruits, the later berries were smaller and didn’t ripen as quickly. In the same way, by giving God our first fruits, the rest of our time, energy, and money may be even better spent and go even further out of the sustenance that comes with a focus on God. I read a quote this morning about how Martin Luther didn’t pray for hours a day because he had extra time, but because he needed to in order to be able to do his great works. I’m sure there are many here who already know the feeling of revival and renewal that comes after attending worship, or the feeling of centeredness that stays with you when you start your day with prayer, or the mysterious way giving seems to bring abundance.

As we begin our journey through Lent, a time of self-examination, prayer, and reflection, let us be intentional about giving God the first fruits in our lives, making God a priority, trusting in God to provide and care for us, and celebrating with gratitude the bounty that God has given us. Amen.

[1] priority. Unabridged. Random House, Inc. (accessed: February 20, 2010).

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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Lenten Practices 2010

Lent is still a new thing for me. I didn't grow up observing it--or even really aware that it existed. Our church went from Christmas Eve to Palm Sunday with nothing special in between (or so it seemed to me). A few years ago, once I moved to NYC, I was worshiping at a church which encouraged members to add a spiritual practice during Lent rather than give something up. I liked that idea, and wanted more practice praying, so I started a daily prayer time.

In other years, I've given up television (allowed me time to read a thick novel while in my last semester of seminary) and the word "should."

This year, it took me a long time to figure out what I was going to do. In fact, I didn't know for sure until I was in the middle of the 7am Ash Wednesday service I was leading.

I'd just finished reading Isaiah 58:1-12:

Shout out! Do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; They ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God. "Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?" Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you to today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? They your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and God will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

I sat down with my congregants to reflect on the words, and they were just pounding in my heart. I knew that giving up my second cup of coffee every afternoon--what I'd been considering for my Lenten practice--was NOT what God was calling me to do!

By mid-afternoon, I'd figured most of it out. I'd take this Lent to focus on gratitude. It is the theme for our church's weekly Lenten activities, and something I've been thinking about a lot in the midst of some devastating realities going on around me: the 22-mo-old daughter of a friend being diagnosed with cancer, another little girl fighting a brain tumor, and the earthquake in Haiti. Gratitude seems like something that should be abundant in my life. So for Lent I decided to stop and give thanks for all food and drink I consume, and keep a gratitude journal with at least five things every day for which I am grateful.

Then, this morning, that Isaiah passage was bugging me again. The words I'd spoken to the people gathered at my evening service haunted me:
Let it be an impetus to live our lives as fully as God intends, not only in self-serving and self-fulfilling ways but in a manner that looses the bonds of injustice, that breaks the yokes of oppression, that offers food to the hungry, homes to the homeless, clothes to the naked and satisfies the needs of the afflicted.
I'd said it myself. Making myself feel good by being grateful for all my blessings wasn't enough if I didn't then act to try and offer everyone access to those blessings. God doesn't want me to simply humble myself in gratitude for my warm, safe bed. No, God wants me to ask why others sleep on concrete and cardboard and mud and trash. God wants me to get them warm, safe beds too!

So in addition to giving thanks for nourishment and being grateful for five things every day, I'm going to "fast" for justice a little. I'm giving a set, small amount of money away every day for mission/justice/humanitarian work. It's not a lot, but it's enough to make me pay attention to my spending for 40 days. And it certainly won't put me on the VIP donor list for any of these organizations, but it's something.

Yesterday's money went to the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, one of my favorite organizations. Today's money went to the UCC's Haiti Earthquake Fund.

So...what are you doing for Lent?

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