Hurting ‘til We Give
October 25, 2015
When it is used in the lectionary – the 3-year cycle of Scripture readings that many churches use in weekly worship – this passage from Deuteronomy is used on Thanksgiving. Which makes sense! This passage combines history and worship and gratitude in much the same way that Thanksgiving does.
Around our Thanksgiving tables – and our meals at other times too – many of us learn what kind of family we’re part of. We learn the family traditions; we hear the stories passed down from generation to generation. What food we eat, what we talk about, what we don’t talk about, what we do after we eat – all of these pieces of our identities are revealed to us around family tables.
My mother was the youngest of three daughters born to deeply Methodist parents. I absorbed that identity, even though by the time I came along my grandparents were attending a Congregational Church and I heard no mention of the word “Methodist” around the family table. But from the prayer my grandfather intoned – Bless this food to our use and us to thy service – to the lack of any alcohol ever in their home, to the priority given to education and community involvement, I became a child of Methodism without even knowing it. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties and attending seminary that I learned my grandfather had moved with my grandmother from Wisconsin to California in order to attend seminary and become a Methodist minister himself. Somehow he got sidetracked into a PhD in European History, leaving me to finish his journey without even knowing that he had started it.
It wasn’t until the first family gathering after my grandparents had passed away that I learned my father and uncles had not been thrilled about that Methodist no-alcohol policy. Let’s just say they were more than happy to drop that part of the identities they had taken on as sons-in-law.
Just as we learn about who we are around our family tables, the Israelites remembered and appropriated their identity around the altar table.
The very origins of the people of Israel are rooted in the gift of land. Over and again the ancient forebears of Israel are promised the land as a sign of God’s ongoing presence. “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you,” announces God to Abram and Sarai. This sacred land is “an inheritance,” a gift from God to Abram and his family and all subsequent generations who claim kinship with them.
Of course, their first worshipping act, then, should be a gift back to God from this same soil. “You shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that YHWH your God is giving you,” Deuteronomy instructs.
Once the best fruit has been selected as the proper gift to God, the worshipper is to put it in a basket, bring it to the priest, and say, “Today I declare to God that I have come into the land that God swore to give to our ancestors.” The priest is then to take the basket and set it down before the altar. And then the worshipper responds by reciting Israel’s history: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor. He went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number. He became a great nation, mighty and populous. The Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us by imposing hard labor upon us. ” So, we cried to God, who “heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. God brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders. God brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”
It is not literally the worshipper – the bringer of first fruits – to whom all of this happened. But by reciting this history together the worshippers declare themselves to be one with their ancestors: what happened to them -- the oppression of Egypt, God’s great exodus, God’s gift of the holy land -- happened to us too.
It might seem odd to use worship as a place to learn history, but the fact is we do it, too. We do it in many ways, especially on holy days like Christmas and Easter. We hear our history on the first Sunday of every month, when we celebrate communion:
Holy are you (Almighty God) and blessed is your Son Jesus Christ. By the baptism of his suffering, death, and resurrection you gave birth to your church, delivered us from slavery to sin and death, and made with us a new covenant by water and the Spirit.
You may not even have realized that you were listening to the history of your people – your history – but you were. Sitting around this meal table with our brothers and sisters in all times and places, we hear the stories that tell us who we are. Whether you’ve been a Methodist all your life or just started checking Christianity out, worshipping together means building an identity together. Whether you like all the history that you inherit or – like my father and uncles – are waiting for the day when you can change some of it, it’s still your story. That’s one of the things worship does.
Worship does something else as well. Besides incorporating us into a shared history, it teaches us the lessons our ancestors learned about how to live faithfully, how to love and honor God, how to love and serve our neighbors. Worship teaches us the discipline of designating regular time for God; it gives us the chance to be more forgiving of others as we receive forgiveness ourselves. And it helps us to become more generous. It does those things by getting us to practice them.
For the last three years, the University of Notre Dame has hosted a study called the Science of Generosity Initiative. In that study, researchers conducted a national survey of Americans’ practices and beliefs about generosity. They interviewed hundreds of Americans around the country on generosity, and they participated and observed dozens of local religious congregations.
First, the study concluded, the more generous Americans are, the more happiness, health, and purpose in life they enjoy. They found a strong, consistent association between generous practices and personal well-being. They even concluded that generous practices actually cause that enhanced personal well-being.
Which doesn’t mean that we can fake generosity in order to enjoy its benefits! The generosity that enriches our lives must be authentic. It must actually be believed and practiced as a real part of one’s life.
Generosity is like love in this way. The more we love, the more love we feel. But our love must be genuine. It is the same with generosity. For generosity to enhance well-being, it must be the generosity, not the well-being, that we are after.
But it is also true that right attitudes often follow right actions. In other words, one way to become a truly generous person is simply to start behaving like one. Like many things in life, we learn by doing, we perfect activities and attitudes by practicing them. So, while generosity cannot ultimately be faked, we can learn generosity. We can set into motion new generous behaviors that are generous and then receive and absorb their meaning and consequences.
Once each week, worship helps us practice our generosity –
- When we put money in the offering plate, whether we do it physically or electronically, we are giving to others –
- We give our children a time and place to learn about God and God’s love;
- We give our youth a healthy, accepting group to be part of where they can ask questions without fear;
- We support a ministry that helps students to connect with each other in the midst of this large, sometimes overwhelming campus;
- We support one another in our efforts to feed the hungry, work for justice, and care for the lonely and sick;
- We support a number of missions and missionaries in our country and around the world as they serve others in Christ’s name.
Worship not only helps us understand our historical identity, it shapes our future identity by leading us to become more generous people.
Today, as our ancestors have done for millennia, offer our gifts back to God. We offer them back to God who has – all through history – been so gracious and generous with us.
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.
Which is what we’re doing today – setting our gifts for the work of the church in 2016 before the altar – and bowing down before the Giver.
We recite our history; we offer our gifts. And then there is one more step. According to Deuteronomy we’re not done until we have celebrated, and included others in that celebration.
“Then, you together with the Levites (landless priests among you) and the sojourners (the immigrants in your midst) who reside (however briefly or however long) among you, shall celebrate (all of you!) with all the bounty that YHWH your God has given to you and to your house” (vs. 11).
Remembering our history and offering our gifts is not enough. There are some among us who do not have access to the bounty with which we are blessed. Our worship is not done until we have invited them to join us, until we have shared our celebration with them. Our identity, the people God has called us to be and the people we have been shaped by our worship to be, requires that we invite others to join us.
Right memory leads to right worship leads to inclusive celebration.
Invite someone, then, to next Sunday’s worship service and Celebration Brunch afterwards. We’ll hear a preliminary report from the Finance Committee about the gifts that we have given today toward next year’s life together. We’ll celebrate all that God has given us. We’ll welcome the strangers and sojourners…knowing that without them we are incomplete.
The poet Anne Sexton says the same think – although much more beautifully – in her poem of everyday thanksgiving called “Welcome Morning.”
There is joy
in the hair I brush each morning,
in the Cannon towel, newly washed,
that I rub my body with each morning,
in the chapel of eggs I cook
in the outcry from the kettle
that heats my coffee
in the spoon and the chair
that cry "hello there, Anne"
in the godhead of the table
that I set my silver, plate, cup upon
All this is God,
right here in my pea-green house
and I mean,
though often forget,
to give thanks,
to faint down by the kitchen table
in a prayer of rejoicing
as the holy birds at the kitchen window
peck into their marriage of seeds.
So while I think of it,
let me paint a thank-you on my palm
for this God, this laughter of the morning,
lest it go unspoken.
The Joy that isn't shared, I've heard,
Rolf Jacobson, Karoline Lewis, and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brainwave #279 - First Sunday in Lent, Posted February 10, 2013. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=372
W. Dennis Tucker, Jr. Commentary on Deuteronomy 26:1-11. Posted February 21, 2010. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=517
Commented Bible Passages. 2014 October: Deuteronomy 26:1-11: Giving back to God what God has given us. http://www.taize.fr/en_article167.html?date=2014-10-01
John C. Holbert. A Sacred Thanksgiving: Reflections on Deuteronomy 26:1-11. November 16, 2010 http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Sacred-Thanksgiving
Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson. The Generosity Paradox: By Giving We Receive, But By Taking We Lose. http://www.dailygood.org/more.php?n=5345