This was a Sunday thick with meaning. I tried to bring it all together within a short sermon.
Deuteronomy 26:1-15; Luke 23:33-43
It’s too late to influence your pledge, right? Good—I’m done trying to coax money out of you. We have shared together a realistic picture of the budget, and we considered the call of doing right by our employees, of supporting our denomination just because we are the universal church, and all the exciting possibilities that more funding and participation could make possible for our ministries: Diaconate, Christian Education, Missions. But unless you are still mulling it over, the time for influencing calculations is past.
Instead, let’s reflect today on why we give. And since it is Reign of Christ Sunday, the last day of ordinary time; and since our lectionary reading included the crucifixion, we can also reflect on the mystery of sacrifice. Christianity has been poorly served by seeing sacrifice as a way to avert punishment. It’s because we have not done a good job contemplating the cross, the mystery of mysteries.
In fact, it turns out that most things offered or sacrificed to God in the Bible are not offered out of guilt and to avert punishment. Sometimes Christians seem to think that the ancient Israelites cowered in fear before an angry, almost implacable God. We see none of that concerning the offering of first fruits in Deuteronomy, even though that offering could involve a bloody sacrifice. We read in chapter three of Deuteronomy: “This shall be the priests’ due from the people, from those offering a sacrifice, whether an ox or a sheep; they shall give to the priest the shoulder, the two jowls, and the stomach. The first fruits of your grain, your wine, your oil, as well as the first of the fleece of your sheep, you shall give him.” Now I’m not sure what I would do with 50 or so ox stomachs from you all; it’s a disgusting thought, really.
I guess 3000 years ago I would have been flattered, but things have changed. I will still accept your gifts of wine; George Knight already gave me a bottle from his vintage. But what this passage shows us is another side of sacrifice. The people are setting aside a portion of what they have produced (from God’s created bounty, don’t forget) to support the Levitical priests, who were not allowed to possess land of their own. That’s another thing that has changed. I am no longer the sole priest and your job is just to feed me; we all share in ministry together. That is why we should not think of pledging and stewardship as strictly financial, but also a matter of participation. And so I will invite you during communion to come dedicate yourself before one of the crosses, if you opt to do so, and to leave your Pledge of Participation card before the cross.
The gift of tithes in Deuteronomy 26, which we read dramatically, also displays this side of sacrifice that has nothing to do with averting punishment or wrath. Nothing is said here about appeasing God, and little is said even about giving out of gratitude for a good harvest. Rather, the sacrifice of first fruits—the first of the harvest, or it can be translated, “the choicest of your fruits”—is done out of grateful remembrance of God’s acting justly to deliver Israel from bondage. The tither is to recount the story of Abraham, the “wandering Aramean,” who lived as an alien in Egypt. We were oppressed by the Egyptians, and then God heard our cry and brought us out of Egypt into this land. And so we give the tithe to support the religious institution, yes, but even more importantly, we imitate God by coming to the aid of those most vulnerable: the aliens, the widows, and the orphans.
When the Old Testament talks about aliens, orphans, and widows, it’s talking about those types of folk for whom the system is not working, those who are not benefitting. The Israelite system involved kinship-based agriculture, and if you were not protected by a patriarch or lacked solid kinship ties—like aliens, widows, and orphans, you couldn’t inherit land and thus were destined for poverty. That’s not exactly our system anymore. So who are our aliens, widows, and orphans? Whom does our system not work for today? Who in our community is destined for poverty or vulnerability? Those are the people we must think about sharing our gifts with, the gifts we bring today to support the church. God in effect is saying to the Israelites, as to us: “Do this, not to appease me, but because by your own experience, the experience of your ancestors, you know what injustice is like. You know what it is like to have no one but God to appeal to, because you were once at the mercy of sinners. So now I am working my deliverance and justice for others through you.”
But notice God in Deuteronomy doesn’t call us to sell all that we have and give to the poor—as the gospel passage had it from a few weeks back. The first fruits commanded in Deuteronomy is not a painful, mournful sacrifice; it is not meant to be a cross to bear. We read: “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 home.” To share one’s gifts in an act of justice is a joy. That was God’s original intention for sacrifice—an act at once just and joyful. I hope you too will be able to directly experience the joy of participating in our Mission or Diaconate ministries that share the bounty of this house with the aliens in our midst. For today, our potluck will symbolically celebrate that joy.
By the way, this Deuteronomy passage is the perfect justification for our bread ministry. When we bring communion bread in to celebrate before God, we should take a portion of that bread to the resident aliens—those still not settled in our community—and to our ‘widows and orphans’—those who are not benefitting from the system in our community. Wouldn’t that be beautiful?
[With grapes and grain] When you make an offering or sacrifice of a first fruit that is a true fruit—an apple, grapes, or a percent of your income—you do not have to take a life. You don’t kill the vine by picking the grapes. This is God’s preference for sacrifice. God wants above all a living sacrifice—a sharing in which all benefit and none suffer. In the creation story of Genesis 1, you might notice that all the animals, including the humans, live by eating only fruit, the bounty of nature that does not require even harming a plant. Later, in our communion liturgy, I’ll recite a passage from Leviticus 23. It mentions three gifts: a gift of wine, which is a fruit. And then grain, which is taken from the dying stalk of a cereal crop.
And it also mentions the gift of a one-year old lamb, whose life must be taken. Our world is not the ideal one of Genesis 1. It is a sad mystery of the world that life does not always prosper only by sharing. Rather, life comes too often at the expense of life. Nations can cooperate and coexist in mutual benefit, but inevitably one nation prospers at the expense, even the oppression, of others. So it was with Israel, so it is with us. We even eat ourselves up over griefs, hurts, and guilt. /We can counteract this oppression, this life at the expense of life, by our giving and sharing, and our mutual care. And by giving and sharing, we can sustain this church as a witness to a way of life that welcomes and supports other life, instead of living at the expense of others; cooperation and sharing over competing and defeating.
But we are so small. No amount of sharing your gifts today is going to make the Kingdom of God, the reign of this sharing love, come in its fullness. All our pledge cards will not add up to enough to make our world into the ideal that God has in mind. The sin, or just the falling-short of the world, and of us, is too great for that to happen.
And so we come back to the mystery of the cross. The meaning of the cross is inexhaustible; it will have many meanings for all of you, as you meditate on it today. But today we can see it as God’s acknowledgement that the world cannot be commanded into doing right and following the law to share life, but persists in the law of survival of the fittest, living by taking life. Yet by the cross God chooses not to abandon but to love the world even so. And so God, in the ultimate and absolute gift, takes upon God’s own being the worst of the law of death which too much holds sway of our world, in its domains, its kingdoms. God in Christ remains God even in the midst of that death, and so shows forth true kingship, true dominion in this world, as that which affirms others even before myself; the true king gives himself to others as opposed to taking other life for himself. /
As we have affirmed since Pentecost, this church continues doing its work in the Spirit because of our gifts, our living sacrifice of money and labor. We celebrate that today. But we would be naïve to think that we’ve succeeded, that all is now right with this church and the world. And so as we begin to take stock of what we might never be able to accomplish, as we ponder the fullness of the kingdom of God that we might never here see, we look back, and ahead, to the mystery of what God did and will do again in Jesus the Christ./ We will bring our sharing of this feast to a close, and in Advent, learn once again to live by waiting, to fast in expectation and longing for our Lord to come. But come he shall; and come he did. The presence of the cross today does not diminish our celebration; it simply sets it upon a foundation of true joy, for God has embraced and overcome all our sorrows.
At our table, we still have in our chalice the offering of fruit from Leviticus 23, and in the form of bread, the offering of grain; we no longer offer the lamb that is mentioned in Leviticus. But we have the cross. For God does not demand a payment of life from us, but gives God’s own life to us; and God raises those whose lives are taken from them, and raises us whenever we die to ourselves, into the eternal justice of the risen Christ. /And so with a sacrifice of thanksgiving, let us freely share our gifts.