First Fruits (First in Series—First Fruits, Deep Commitments)
September 23, 2018
Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Epworth United Methodist Church, Berkeley, CA
In last year’s Harvest of Gifts, Epworth’s annual auction in which we share talents, treasures, and host events among other offerings to raise fun and funds for our congregation’s ministries, our family offered an Italian Dinner party that we would prepare and host to the six highest bidders. Last week, we finally gathered together this group in a wonderful feast of food and fellowship. After dinner over dessert, our conversation turned toward the price of housing in the Berkeley area and the Bay Area in general. As we talked, my wife, Elizabeth, shared with everyone a picture she had on her phone of a house that looked like it was about to fall down, rotted sides, boarded up windows, no steps to the front door…that was selling for a million dollars. I think most of us are well aware of this reality, but it comes up regularly in conversation because the numbers and the situation are mind blowing: a million dollars for a house that is literally uninhabitable? How did we get here? many of us ask.
But the corollary question for many is how do we stay here, and can come with a side of fear when we think of the fact that this is home, with familiar surroundings, attachments and life-giving relationships. This juxtaposition of the value and the vulnerability of our home can keep us up at night.
In our scripture today from Deuteronomy, the Israelites are camped on the east side of the Jordan, on the plains of Moab, directly across from Jericho. They have been in the desert for 40 years and are about to enter the land that was promised to their ancestors in the time of Abraham and Sarah. This is the land that they have sacrificed for, that they’ve been longing for. They have lived the vulnerability of having no set home as they have been moving across the Sinai, and now the location and consequent stability that may have occupied a part of their thoughts each day is in sight.
The scripture does something interesting here. Instead of focusing on the celebration of having arrived, or congratulating them on their perseverance to the goal, it focuses on two other things. First, the emphasis is on God’s saving action throughout history, and second, it introduces the practice of giving the first fruits to God.
Why the first fruits? Why doesn’t the proscription just talk about making any offering? Why is it important that what is given to God is the first of the harvest? The answer is in the oath that is to be said when the first fruit is put in a basket and given to the priest, “I declare today to the Lord your God that I have come to the land the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us. My father was a wandering Aramean and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, subjecting us to harsh labor. Then we cried out to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now I bring the first fruits of the soil that you, Lord, have given me.”
Even though they are about to come into the promised land, the primary identity of the Israelites has been that of wanderers. Yet now, a people who had been homeless are about to have a home. One would think that this would be on the threshold of moving out of vulnerability, but in fact, what this piece of scripture is communicating is that this is perhaps one of their most vulnerable times.
You see, in the wilderness, they were forced to rely on God, who had demonstrated presence and faithfulness in a number of ways. Once this people moves out of that mode, would they forget? Would they begin to think that they didn’t need God? And so as they entered this promised land flowing with milk and honey, they need some practice that will help them to continue to order their lives in such a way that they rely on and look only to God for their security.
Think about this practice of the first fruit offering. In the agrarian culture of the ancient near east, income and other resources primarily are procured only once a year, when the harvest is sold. If the first of that harvest is given to God, this is the best of the harvest. Harvesting takes several days and so after the fruit of the first days of the harvest was given to God, harvesting continued. When the first fruit is offered, there was no guarantee that something wouldn’t happen to the rest of the harvest or that it wouldn’t be ruined by rain or another weather event or pestilence or some other calamity. Giving the first fruit was a practice that actually made them quite vulnerable. It was a practice that said, come what may, our trust is in the Lord. Come what may, God has delivered us and will deliver us again. Come what may, I will praise the Lord.
In the vulnerable times we live in, this is an incredibly hard practice to imagine. Not just to give a portion of what we have to God, but to do so without knowing if anything else is coming. In our modern minds, we may think, “Isn’t that what they travelled all that way for, so they could land in a secure place and not have to feel the vulnerability they felt in the desert?” But no, actually it wasn’t. They travelled all that way to remember that they were free people, not slaves. To remember that they were God’s beloveds and that they were in primary covenant with the God of Abraham, who was also their God. And as free people, they were free to put their trust in God. They travelled all that way to become a new people, a people of the promised land who were in possession not only of the primary covenant with Abraham, but also of the covenant of the law, given to Moses at Mt. Sinai and shared with them as a new and free people.
The covenant with Abraham was one of unconditionality, a promise from God to Abraham and all of Abraham’s descendants. But the covenant of the law was one of mutuality. It required response.
It’s important to remember that the children who had left Egypt are now adults. The laws given to them at Mt. Sinai had been agreed to by their parents and grandparents, and now, as they enter a new land that they expect to be their home, there is a reiteration of the law. The word “Deuteronomy” derives from the Greek meaning a copy or a repetition, or “second law”; these adults now need to affirm who they are, what they believe and who they follow. Ultimately they are asked to affirm where they will put their trust—will they put it in themselves or will they put it in God.
Now I do not mean in any way to suggest housing insecurity is a preferable state. We as a community have the resources to end housing insecurity in this country. It was always the goal of the Israelites to move through the desert, not stay there. And they were only there in the first place because they were fleeing oppression. The phrase in our scripture for today "when you have come into the land" is not a statement about geography. It is a promise and affirmation of salvation. God not only provides, God, and the community we find in God, are life itself.
No matter where we are and what we are doing, this is what we are asked to keep in front of us and to respond to: God not only provides, God and the community we find in God, are life itself.
And if we live and breathe the truth that we have nothing apart from God, then offering the first fruit is a logical expression of that.
When I was a child I remember my grandparents talking about tithing. It’s not like they talked about it a lot. But their unequivocal commitment to giving the first ten percent of every paycheck to the church impressed me and has stayed with me. They were persons of modest means—my grandfather worked for a construction company, my grandmother was a Christian education director, then stopped working to raise a family and later went back to work as a church secretary. They lived in a small and tidy three bedroom home in Oklahoma City. Their giving of their first fruit was just one dimension to the way that God was at the center of their lives. It was one example of their deep commitment to the church.
Today we are beginning a series of looking at our own deep commitments to God and to the church. Please take a look at the quote from Sister Helen Prejean on the front of your bulletin--and yes, your church staff has been working all week planning for today in spite of what it may have seemed like this morning as worship began—“I watch what I do to see what I really believe.” Sister Helen Prejean is of course the nun who is best known for her accompaniment and pastoral care of persons condemned to death and in prison on death row, and for accompaniment and pastoral care for the victims and survivors of their crimes. Her deep commitment is clear. She has given not just the first fruits of her livelihood, but all of her life to the work of compassion and justice.
In the next month, we’ll be engaging in a process that invites us to watch what we do to see what we believe. We’ll be in prayer asking God to empower us in making new and deep commitments. The offering of the first fruit is a part of that invitation. But really this is an opportunity to look deeply at our lives and see if what we value and what we are most grateful for is met with where we put our time, our talents and our treasure. We are blessed with a community of faith here at Epworth that we have known to be life-giving, a fact which is re-affirmed over and over again. In the next month, let us sink into that peace, that grounding, that home, and respond with deep commitments. Amen.