1st Sunday of Lent
17 February 2013
Elizabeth M. Deibert
I have not had the flu this year– stomach or respiratory – but what I remember about being sick with the flu is how thankful you feel when your fever and aches are gone and you feel like a human being again. When you’ve been nauseated, and finally you feel like eating again, there is this rush of gratitude. “Thank you God that I feel good again!"
We had new neighbors move in this summer from Wisconsin. They have four girls and they were constantly in the pool. The parents were always reveling in the wonderful weather. But now that they’ve been here a while, they are just like the rest of us – rolling from one beautiful day to the next without giving thanks. We take it for granted. Sometimes we need some northern relative or friend to come visit to remind us what a blessing it is to live with such beautiful sunshine year-round.
Deuteronomy is like your northern relative or friend. This book is all about remembering how cold and grey life was before God rescued you. The passage we are reading today is set in the time before the Israelites entered the Promised Land, but it was probably written many hundreds of years later, when they could look back and rehearse the stories of how good life was in the Promised Land, before they forgot how good they had it, before they were taken away in Exile.
This passage is a challenge to remember your blessings and to be thankful, by giving back to God and by giving generously to our neighbor as well. That’s what our opening hymn, quoting Hebrews 13:15 means by our sacrifice of praise. The sacrifices we make to thank God for the blessings we have been given.
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, 2 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. 3 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." 4 When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God, 5 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. 6 When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, 7 we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. 8 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; 9 and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 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. 11 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. (NRSV)
The writer of Deuteronomy makes it very clear that giving of our first fruits is the best way to say thanks to God. The first fruit is the like the first thing you buy, the first check you write after payday. The first fruit is not the leftovers. The first is the best. But it is not just giving, but rehearsing the story of God’s deliverance.
Have you ever considered that how you rehearse your life’s story says a lot about your relationship with God? There are many ways to recount history, your personal history, but how you choose to remember it, will shape your future attitudes. You can tell your story from the perspective of a victim – all the bad stuff people have done to you, all the unfortunate things in your life, all the pain you’ve had to endure, all the things you cannot afford to buy.
Or you can tell your story as a self-made person, remembering how you accomplished this or that, and how all your children are good-looking and above average in every way. Or you can tell your story with more humility and gratitude to God, by pointing out how God has redeemed your mistakes, forgiven your sins, lavished you with gifts beyond your deserving, and blessed you with the gift of friends and family, with comforts like home, health, food and shelter, rather than taking those for granted.
At Peace we’ve been in a season of gratitude because we are anticipating the gift of a new home – our Promised Land. Just a short time ago, we had no idea how we would move confidently into the future. Our lease here was ending sooner than we wanted, we could not find another acceptable place to rent, nor could we afford to build on the five acres our presbytery purchased for us. We were in a tight place. But with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great mercy and compassion, tenderness and love, God came to our aid. God rescued us from our distress. God has blessed us with a land and a building.
Even people beyond Peace can see that. Peggy Donaldson told me yesterday that she had a friend at First Presbyterian who was praying for us when we were on the verge of homelessness as a church, and when she heard the good news of our contract and building purchase campaign, she exclaimed, “That’s God.” I think we all can see the hand of God in the way this plan came together.
So let’s recap what we are learning from Deuteronomy. First, we learn that it is right to give thanks to God for our blessings. Second, we learn to rehearse the story of God’s great work in our lives. Third, we learn that giving thanks involves giving generously to God, not what’s leftover, but your first fruits, out of gratitude. When you give your first fruits, whether it is a weekly pledge off the top or a gift from investments, you have to trust that God will help you make it on what’s left. Stewardship, the act of managing your resources faithfully, requires two things – a heart of gratitude and a willful act of trust – a leap of faith.
But there’s another key point in our lesson from Deuteronomy: Notice the last verse of the text. 11 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. So after you set aside your thank offering to God, you invite the strangers, the weak, the alien, the strangers around you and you share with them the bounty that God has given. So the bountiful blessing is not just for us. We are blessed to be a blessing to others.
Several examples: God has blessed some of you with resources to be very helpful in this purchase of land. You could have claimed those blessings as yours to spend as you please, but instead, you realized that God gave you extra so that you might be a blessing to others through this church. Others of you are stretching to give a little more each week or month, even though worried about how you will pay your bills. Thank you for making your sacrifice of praise.
Another example: This country of ours – the great USA – has welcomed aliens from day one. We have been the land of opportunity, and we understood that we had been blessed so that others might also be blessed. Many strangers have come to these states looking for a chance to earn a decent living, to rise above the poverty, danger, or religious restrictions of their former homeland. Many of us are descendants of such aliens, so my hope is that we can find a way to continue to share the blessing of living in a land of opportunity.
Another example is this land Peace is purchasing. We will soon have the privilege of space that belongs to us, that we can decide how it gets used. I pray we will be generous with the bounty God has given. I pray that we will always be looking beyond ourselves to the persons who might need peace – peace of mind, peace in Christ, peace and security, any kind of peace. Compassionate Outreach has always been one of our goals. We have aimed to care for the needs of others by serving the poor, the homeless, the hungry, and those without faith or without a loving church community. I hope we will continue to look beyond ourselves and people like us to explore how God might want us to be a safe refuge, a sanctuary of welcome for all people – especially those who are rejected or misunderstood or forgotten or marginalized in any way.
Not many of us know the pain of being an alien, the fear of hiding who you really are, so that people will not reject you – because you are without legal documents or because you are gay or because of whatever it is you hide about you – your past, your present. Jesus challenged the attitudes of the religious authorities by spending time with the people they rejected, the people they considered unclean, unfit. He scandalized the powerful and the super religious by showing them the boundless nature of God’s love.
To really understand God’s grace, we have to first understand that not one of us deserves it. It is by the mercy of God that we wake up every morning. What? Did you think it was a given that you should be alive today? Did you deserve more time on earth than the dead children of Sandy Hook, or the dead villagers in Pakistan, struck by a bomb yesterday? No. While we cannot rationalize those tragedies, we know it is only by the grace of God that we are alive and that we live in comfort, and are surrounded by such beauty and bountiful resources. Why do we take it for granted, as if we earned what we have, as if it were not a gift to be born into a reasonably safe country, to have clean water, a good education, freedom of religion and freedom of speech, excellent medical care, wonderful opportunities?
You see, when we stop rehearsing the truth that it is God who blesses us, then we become ungrateful, self-serving, spoiled brats. So don’t forget every day to give thanks to God for all the gifts of your life and every week or month giving back your first fruits. Especially in the season of Lent, give thanks for the life that Christ gives you by his sacrifice on the cross, and let that thanksgiving overflow into spiritual disciplines of sacrificial love toward others. The Mission Team is offering you multiple ways to show sacrificial love during Lent. Please choose at least one and make a commitment to it today.
God has richly blessed us beyond our deserving. People who are grateful for God’s bountiful blessings cannot help but share generously with others, the first fruits, not the last, our sacrifice of praise.