November 22, 2016

Like the Fruit of the Land

Find your story in God’s story and give thanks.

This call to worship cuts a course through the heart of the scripture because at several crossroads in their journey with God, God’s people received an invitation to remember where they’d been, to anticipate where they were going, and to celebrate the One who traveled with them.

When the Israelites escaped Egypt on dry land through the sea, the first thing they did on the far shore was remember God and give thanks.

When Hannah received her heart’s desire, she remembered God and gave thanks.

When King David escaped his enemies’ plots, he remembered and gave thanks.

When “the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion” and God’s people “were like those who dream,” and the nations said, “The LORD had done great things for them,” the people said, “The LORD has done great things for us,” and they rejoiced. They remembered and gave thanks.

All the along their pilgrim journey, sustained by their Everlasting Portion, faithful hearts remember where they’ve been, anticipate where they’re going, and celebrate the One with whom they travel.

They find their story in God’s story and give thanks.

Deuteronomy 26 recounts another moment in which God’s people heard this call to worship.

The people of God were nearing the Promised Land. Their exodus from slavery to freedom was almost complete.

At that time, somewhere “beyond the Jordan,” Moses—who had been their leader for forty years—assembled his road wearied and battle tested followers and “spoke to the Israelites just as the LORD had commanded him to speak to them,” including, it’s said, the passage before us this morning.

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, 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.
As slaves they toiled for their masters, as wilderness wanderers they depended on daily manna from heaven, but in the Land of Promise, the people would work the soil and harvest its bounty for themselves. And when they gathered the first fruits of their labor, Moses instructed them to offer a portion to God in gratitude for all that they had received. Moses even told them how they should pray.

The faithful should offer a prayer of thanksgiving. This prayer, however, wasn’t just about the rain and sun that helped the harvest to grow. This prayer painted in bright colors on a great canvas the majestic story of God’s steadfast love.

When bringing in the first fruits of the land the people should lift up their hearts—beyond the annual cycle of planting and reaping—to the One whose power and faithfulness made this moment—this life of freedom and abundance—possible.

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.” When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God, 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. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. 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; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.”
Take note of the powerful act of worship described here.

Oh yes, it’s about being thankful for work and the harvest and being able to put food of the table. Absolutely, that’s what this is about, but that’s not all.

This thankful and worshipful act was also a call to remember.

Remember where you’ve come from.

Remember what you’ve been through.

Remember the times when you went without.

Remember who heard your cry and answered your prayers.

Find your story in God’s story and give thanks.

This fall season we’ve been reading the Book of Exodus at our Bible study on Monday nights. The struggle described in that book—the pain and hope and confusion and screw ups that shaped the Exodus journey—teach us that the invitation to give thanks at the journey’s end was anything but superficial.

Like the harvest of the land’s first fruits, thanksgiving is the product of hard work and hope and grace.

Gratitude and hard work—last year when Pope Francis visited our city this was the theme of a message he delivered at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. Francis first spoke these words to a congregation of Catholic priests, nuns, and monks, but I think even a bunch of Methodists like us can hear the wisdom in them.

At Saint Patrick’s Francis preached,

Joy springs from a grateful heart. Truly, we have received much, so many graces, so many blessings, and we rejoice in this. It will do us good to think back on our lives with the grace of remembrance. Remembrance of when we were first called, remembrance of the road travelled, remembrance of graces received… and, above all, remembrance of our encounter with Jesus Christ so often along the way. Remembrance of the amazement which our encounter with Jesus Christ awakens in our hearts…Perhaps we need to ask ourselves: are we good at counting our blessings? [Or have I forgotten them?]
He continued.
A second area is the spirit of hard work. A grateful heart is spontaneously impelled to serve the Lord and to find expression in a life of commitment to our work. Once we come to realize how much God has given us, a life of self-sacrifice, of working for him and for others, becomes a privileged way of responding to his great love.
Like the harvest of the land’s first fruits, thanksgiving is the product of hard work and hope and grace.

And like the fruit of the land, our lives and our loves are meant to be shared with others.

Somewhere beyond the Jordan, Moses gave the people one final direction for their harvest celebration.

You shall set [your offering] down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God. 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.
Awash in God’s blessings, grateful for God’s provisions, the faithful should celebrate with their neighbors, taking care to remember “the Levites and the aliens.”

What was so special about Levites and aliens?

These were two groups of people who had no land of their own and could not, therefore, bring an offering forward. Despite their landlessness, however, they still had a place in God’s family and the faithful would have the privilege of their company at their celebrations. God's grace and the loving community God wills into being were of far greater significance than anything that the Levites and aliens lacked.

Once we come to realize how much God has given us, a life of self-sacrifice, of working for him and for others, becomes a privileged way of responding to his great love.
A call to worship cuts a course through the heart of the scripture because at several crossroads in their journey with God, God’s people received an invitation to remember where they’d been, to anticipate where they were going, and to celebrate the One who traveled with them.

Today, that invitation comes to us.

People of John Street, find your story in God’s story and give thanks.

Amen.

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