“A Lesson from the Wilderness”
First Sunday of Lent
Sunday February 21, 2010
Deuteronomy 26: 1-11
Psalm 91: 1-2, 9-16
Romans 10: 8b – 13
When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to 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.
The people of Israel were approaching the end of their long wilderness journey. Soon, they would enter the Promised Land; but Moses knew that he was not going to be able to enter the Land with them. Today’s suggested reading from the final chapters of Deuteronomy recounts some of Moses’ final words to the people as he was preparing to leave them. The author of Deuteronomy sets, into Moses’ mouth, words which were intended to offer important guidance about how they were to order their lives and what practices they were to embrace in the community that they were about to establish.
And one of those important practices was that of collecting up the first fruits of the harvests, and bringing them into the community of faith. The words that they were to speak as they did so would help them to remember, with gratitude, God’s care for them in the past. They would recite the story of their ancestors, who had become an oppressed people in Egypt; they would recount how God had heard their cries and had liberated them; they would remember how God had acted with signs and wonders to bring them into a land flowing with milk and honey; and, in response to God’s gracious acts, the people would declare, as verse 10 states, “so now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.”
But the act of offering the first fruits of their labours was more than an opportunity to remember past events; it was also meant to be a way of sharing what they had so that all of the community could join together in celebration. “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.”
The verses that immediately follow after the end of today’s reading from Deuteronomy 26, continue this same theme. The people are reminded that they were to give a tithe, a tenth of what they had received so that, as verse 12 states, “the Levites, the aliens, the orphans and the widows,…may eat their fill within your towns.” Aside from the Levites who, as the priestly tribe of Israel, were responsible for the religious and spiritual life of the community, the other three categories –aliens, orphans and widows – were the three most vulnerable groups in their society. Aliens were foreigners, who would not enjoy the same legal or community supports that the people of Israel could rely upon; and orphans and widows were those, in that ancient patriarchal society, who did not have a man to advocate on their behalf. Aliens, orphans and widows were the most in danger of exploitation and mistreatment. The giving of the tithe was a way for the people to create a society in which the community of faith would be supported, and the most vulnerable would be cared for. And the giving of the tithe from the first fruits would serve to remind the people that the best of what anyone had was to be viewed as gifts and blessings to be shared and celebrated in the community, rather than as resources to be hoarded by individuals.
So what did these practices have to do with their wilderness experiences?
One of the important lessons that stands at the heart of this practice of giving a portion from the first fruits of their daily labours is a lesson that they had been forced to learn in the wilderness – that is, the lesson of trust.
Many times, during those forty years, the people had experienced situations that had tested their trust that God was able to provide for them.
But God had proved, time and again, that such trust was not misplaced. When they feared that they were wandering aimlessly, God had provided a cloud to guide them by day and a pillar of fire to guide them by night. When they thought that they were going to starve from a lack of food, God had provided manna and quail. When they thought that they were going to die of thirst, God had provided water from a rock. The great lesson that the people had been required to learn, again and again, through that wilderness journey, was that God was inviting them to live with trust; and that God was worthy of that trust.
But now, their journey was almost over. And, as they entered the land flowing with milk and honey, their need to trust would be challenged. Resources necessary for the maintenance of life would be far more plentiful and accessible. No longer would life be quite as precarious as it had been; no longer would hunger and thirst be quite as threatening; no longer would trust in an unseen power be quite as ‘necessary’.
It would be easy for the people to begin to place their trust in the plentiful harvests of the land in which they lived, or to think that the resources that they had amassed were primarily a consequence of their own hard work.
But the giving of the first fruits would remind them of their continued need to trust, since it would require them to trust that there would still be enough left over to satisfy their other needs and responsibilities after they had given away the first and the best of what they had. By giving the first fruits, they were to give to others before they took for themselves – and in so doing, constantly expose themselves to the risk that there would not be enough, and to the need to trust that God would provide. They were to give before they took, to share before they hoarded, to support their community before they saved for themselves, to care for the community of faith and the vulnerable before they cared for themselves, in the faith that God would provide enough for them -- as God had so faithfully demonstrated in the wilderness.
The idea that we give from the best of what we have before we take for ourselves is a challenge in every age, and perhaps especially in our modern culture. Our natural tendency, as humans, is to give from what is left over after we have taken care of ourselves. We hear the supposedly wise financial advice to pay ourselves first; we are bombarded with the temptation to actually believe that taking care of number one is responsible and respectable; we are lulled into thinking that what we give to others should come out of what we have left over after we have satisfied ourselves.
In a culture such as our own, these ancient words about giving a portion of the first fruits of our labours seem rather strange, somewhat uncomfortable, and perhaps even objectionable.
And yet, this is what the people of God have been called to do, throughout the ages.
So how is this done? It is done, in part, by learning, from the ancient people of Israel, that giving may not be an act of noble charity, but rather one of faithful discipline.
When I was growing up, my parents gave my sisters and me an allowance. The amounts that we had accumulated were recorded, each week, in a ledger, which was kept in a kitchen drawer. The ledger had three columns on it -- and those three columns were labeled tithe, save and spend. The amounts of our allowance, and our chores and responsibilities, would increase each year (which meant that my older sister always made five cents more than I did since she was a year older); but regardless of the amount, ten percent was recorded in the tithe column, and the rest divided between what we were allowed to spend and what we were supposed to save. Every few weeks, we would take the amount in the tithe column with us to Sunday School. Even from that early age, the practice of giving ten percent of our income to the community of faith became a part of the way that we viewed our finances.
It is a practice that has continued, in the life of our family, and it is now one of the most challenging but meaningful spiritual disciplines that we embrace. It is meaningful because it offers a regular reminder that all that we have is a gift from God; that God both invites our trust and can be trusted; and that faith calls us to use what we have in accordance with what we believe that God invites us to do with what has been entrusted to us.
Of course, the coming weeks of income tax preparations will remind us that one of the great blessings of life in Canada is that we receive an income tax benefit for our contributions to the church – listed as ‘charitable donations’. So many of our brothers and sisters in the Church, in other parts of the world, cannot imagine that the spiritual discipline of giving to the church could be credited by the government as a reason to reduce their taxes. While I believe that it is perfectly appropriate to take advantage of these income tax benefits, I also believe that it is good to remind ourselves that the giving of tithes and offerings is not, ultimately, a matter of charity. It is a matter of Christian discipline.
Lest anyone suspect that I am making some subtle appeal for the financial support of the congregation in light of the fact that next Sunday is Commitment Sunday and three weeks from now is the congregational meeting at which time we will consider the budget for the year, please know that no subtlety is intended. To the contrary, in the coming weeks, I would invite all of us to give prayerful consideration to how we plan to use our financial resources in the coming year, and how we, like the ancient people of Israel, might better cultivate a discipline that exposes us to the risk of needing to deepen our trust in the God who has invited us to offer the first fruits of our labours to support the community of faith, and to provide for the most vulnerable in our society.
It is important to state, however, that the care that the church extends is not connected with a person’s financial contributions. I as the minister -- and all but a necessary few of the elders -- do not know what people give, so as not to avoid confusing the motivations for the care that is extended. In the Church of Jesus Christ, care and compassion are offered in response to human need, and not in response to a person’s financial contributions.
It is also important to state, clearly, that this call to offer the first fruits of our lives does not only apply to money. Rather, this calling to give before we take, to offer the best of what we have and who we are, is a principle that stands at the heart of every part of our faith.
In the use of our time, skills and energy, we are called to offer our first fruits – to give of the best of who we are. But how often do we hold back from acting in compassion towards the other, or how often do we hold back from spending time with someone who needs our care, or how often do we view the practices of our faith –worship, prayer, the reading of Scripture, the call to service – as pastimes to be explored only in our ‘leftover’ time? When was the last time that we set aside the first and best part of our time and energy to deepen our relationship with God?
The truth is that God longs for us to be and to give from the best of who we are. Our time, our skills, our abilities, our compassion, our energy, our service towards others – the call of faith is to give of our best to God. We do so in a spirit of trust – that when we give before we take, when we order our priorities correctly, when we offer our first fruits – God can be trusted to provide for what we need, even as God did for the people as they journeyed through the wilderness.
And what is interesting for us to remember, as we begin this journey into the season of Lent, is that this principle of offering the very best lies at the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When God knew that the brokenness of this world needed to be repaired, God did not hold back.
God gave the best that there was to give. God sent Jesus.
May we respond to God’s first and best gift with the first and best of who we are in every dimension of our lives.