Deuteronomy 26:1-1117 November 2013
Elizabeth M. Deibert
My brother Curt, who lives with my mom, grows roses. He has four rose gardens with about 20-30 bushes each. He tells me that the first set of blooms, the first fruits of spring are by far the most spectacularly beautiful.
We who live in the two season land of SW Florida, who grow things in the winter and in these modern times of mass transportation enjoy fruit from all around world in every season, have a hard time appreciating the notion of first fruits. But some of us can remember well that it was a real gift to land in strawberry season or apple season or orange season, or corn season, and enjoy the first fruits of the long-awaited season. In the Bible, references to first fruits are almost always associated with thank-offerings. This notion of giving one’s first fruits originates in Ancient Israel and Greece with the requirement of the first tenth of the produce harvested being given to the priest or sacrificed to God. The leftovers after the harvest, called the gleanings, were to be left for the poor.
So in Biblical times, the idea was, you took the first of your produce – first 10th and gave it – in a rather obligatory way as your gift of responsibility to God. Then out of kindness you left the corners of the field, the last, hard-to-reach parts of the tree to be harvested by those most desperately needy. You lived on the middle 80 percent of your harvest. It’s kind of like the way we ask you on Dedication Sunday to commit to pledging a particular percentage of your income each year. As a young pastor, I used to avoid talking about giving – challenging the congregation. But I have seen personally and have seen in others the real joy that comes from giving generously. Giving not ‘til it hurts, but until it feels really good! If you’re uncomfortable, it may be because you have not given enough to catch the joy and freedom that comes with giving until you feel good. We just don’t get it sometimes.
One time on Dedication Sunday this ten year old kid was at lunch with his parents after church, he started asking about the tip money left on the table. After they got in the car, the kid says, “So let me get this straight, God gets 10% and the waiter gets 15 or 20? That doesn’t make sense.” The math for 10% is easy but the giving level can be daunting. I encourage you to start with a small percentage. If you are barely making it, think of growing into a tithe, increasing your pledge each year. Sometimes the joy of giving can overwhelm you – like the two guys who walked out of church with just their boxers on. Standing outside the church, half-naked, the one guy says to the other – that was the best sermon on giving I’ve ever heard.
Okay, well, trust me, I want you keep your clothes on, but just stretch a bit beyond your comfort zone in your generosity because we can do so much together here at Peace – that we cannot do separately. Eight years ago, we did not exist except as an idea. But people began to give their first fruits of time, talent, and treasure – and Peace became a church. First fruits – off the top of our paycheck or monthly income because we know we are likely to spend what’s left, if we don’t give to God first. But then in there are opportunities at Peace and in any faith community to give what’s left (the gleanings) to special offerings for other people. So it’s like a sandwich with top and bottom going to God and neighbor and the middle of the sandwich is for yourself.
Speaking of special offerings, we are collecting today for the victims of the typhoon in the Philippines. I read yesterday the heart-wrenching story of a twenty-seven year-old family breadwinner who died from complications of a broken leg. I watched a video of two children, whose parents were crushed under rubble while they, the kids huddled together and miraculously lived. What a desperate situation. Let us allow our hearts to be broken for our Filipino brothers and sisters. I also saw the story of a church which is being used for shelter, with people sleeping on the pews, even while continuing to hold services. So we ask for gleanings – leftovers for the most needy today, even on the same day that we ask for a commitment from you about first fruits of next year. With thanksgiving, with gratitude.
As the Israelites were charged to remember that they were once slaves in Egypt and that it was God who brought them out and gave them a land. So we as we make our pledges and offerings each year and each week are challenged to remember that all we have comes from God. The reason we are so joyful about having our “promised land” is that we have been tenants for eight years. The joy of the congregation over having our own land and building is fresh now, but we must not forget from where we have come and how God brought us here.
I’d like to ask the early founders of Peace to stand up. Gary and Junie, and then everyone else who dreamed early, who met on Sunday nights at Living Lord Lutheran. Then those who arrived in our first year of worship at MCC. You believed God could do this thing, despite looking around and seeing 30-40 people. Please remain standing now, while I ask all the charter members who came in time to be at Peace on that great day in October of 2009 when Peace New Church Development became an official church in the PC(USA). Without you coming along as the first fruits of our ministry in the college and in our homes and at the park, we would have fallen in discouragement. But you took the yoke from our shoulders and plowed the earth, and made us a real church, not just a little group of people wishing they were a church. Please continue standing.
About a year later, we moved to this location for a new season of harvest. Please stand if you came to Peace after charter, in 2010 or 2011, a surge of new growth for the church, which made us confident for the first time that we might one day afford a building to house our ministry. Here we saw the fruit of having 24/7 space to conduct our ministries. We moved tables and chairs, but we left nursery and classrooms and offices all week long – what a joy! Keep standing now as we add all who have come in 2012 and 2013 to Peace – even those who have not joined yet but who are coming and thriving and celebrating with us. You are the ones who have made it possible for us to go to our “promised land.” You have ridden this year’s roller coaster with us, without screaming or running away while our plan kept evolving. Build here – NO! buy this foreclosed church – NO, moldy! Wait a minute, here’s the place God is calling us to go and what a perfect plan –only we did not know until now when God’s time was right. Thank you, everyone. You may be seated.
So now our wandering has ended, our fear of failure is behind us, we have landed, Peace will settle, but not really – not in a lazy way. Because you see, harvest time is every year, and in Florida, all year long, and especially in winter. Peace has a home, but not to sit down and rest. Peace has a home into which we can welcome more workers into God’s field. Peace has a home from which we can go out to harvest, to serve, to love. Peace has a home to nurture faith, hope, and love in children, youth, and adults at every stage of life, so they have more to take with them into the world where others are hurting and need peace. Hear how God calls the Israelites to enter the land, taking the first fruits and giving them up and not just giving them up, but recounting the challenging story of how God lead them to the Promised Land. The gifts and the story are to remind them to have grateful and generous hearts, especially after they are blessed with a land and its wealth.
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. (New Revised Standard Version)
Together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, you shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given you. So you see, all the bounty that is ours over at 12705 Highway 64 has been given us for our sharing with others. It is not just for us.And we celebrate that so many of you have given so much of yourselves – remembering that the church is not just here to serve you – but you to serve God in the church. What a joy to watch you stream into our new property all week long, tackling tasks! Gia and I could barely get any worship work done this week the building was so alive with excited people. I can hardly wait to see the building and grounds full of you this morning, as we leave this place and go there.
As those of old their first fruits brought, so we bring the first fruits of our time, our talent, and our treasure to God.Peace would not be here, apart from each of you and the role you play. When I invited you to consider who needed to be thanked, most of you named names and honestly there were so many names mentioned that I cannot begin to name sixty or eight people by name with all that you have done for Peace. So here’s my summary of all you said: “Thank the newer Peace family members who have really contributed to this move.” Others of you said, thank the people who founded the church and served on three different teams to keep it going. Many of you said, “Thank the people who have given so generously of their resources so we could afford this property, and thank those who have given so much time, working on this purchase and the predecessor decisions, and all who have scrubbed and carried and cleaned – here at MAR but also at college, and most of all, at our new home, and to all who will do so today.
Thank the quiet people who are always here, working behind the scenes to help children, to make coffee, to set up for worship, help in the office, or take attendance so we know who might be missing, might be struggling. Thank all the people who are so caring, so attentive to people and all those who teach any age.Thank God for those who were with us previously and have died or moved or moved on to other callings. Thank the task masters who organize and lead. Thank the role models, whose peaceful personalities, whose spirit of gratitude, whose encouraging love, whose faith and prayer sustains us all. Thank all the talented people who make music and design artfully and inspire us all. Thank those who pick up jobs dropped by others, without hesitation. Thank those who never said “no” to any job and tell them you will do it this time so they don’t have to. Thank those who never get discouraged, even in discouraging times. Thank all people at Peace for being the people of Peace, loving God, loving one another, loving beyond the church to the community and world. Thank you for being gracefully and lovingly determined to fulfill our mission to make God known by growing as disciples, building a community of peace, and caring for the needs of others.