Sermon for November 20th, 2016
1 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, 2 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. 3 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.” 4 When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, 5 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. 6 When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, 7 we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. 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. 11 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.
A Commitment to Give
There were two men shipwrecked on a deserted island. As soon as they arrived at the island, one of them started screaming and wailing, "We're going to die! There's no food! No water! We're going to die!"
The second man, however, remained calm, finding a nice tree in the shade to prop himself up against, as he relaxed and closed his eyes. This drove the first man crazy. "Don't you understand?!? We're going to die!!" The second man replied, "No, you don't understand. I make $100,000 a week." The first man looked at him quite dumbfounded and said, "What difference does that make? Your money's no good here--we can't eat it or drink it, can we? We're going to DIE!"
The second man calmly replied, "You obviously don't get it. I make $100,000 a week, and every week I go to church, and I tithe--ten percent of that $100,000--to my church. I'm not worried, because I know my pastor WILL find me!"
Today is commitment Sunday. Some of you brought your pledge cards and placed them on the table before worship began, some may do that after the service is over. Some of you mailed in your pledge card to the office days ago, and some of you may just be wondering, "What's a pledge card? What's commitment Sunday?"
Commitment Sunday happens four times a year, each time with a different commitment. This is a tradition here at First Presbyterian Church that dates at least back to the 1950s under the ministry of Rev. Bill Burroughs. In the past decade, that tradition has slipped somewhat, but we're bringing it back.
Four Sundays. Four commitments. The first one happened this past August, and it was a commitment to serve. Hope Griffin preached that day about what it has meant in her life to serve, and to volunteer. After the worship service, we had a churchwide volunteer fair, where many of you signed up and made a commitment to serve in various ministries in our church and community. That was commitment Sunday number one.
The second commitment Sunday, today, is a commitment to give. The third commitment Sunday will be in February: A commitment to pray; and the final one will be in May, a commitment to study. Serve, Give, Pray, Study. Why these particular four commitments?
Because they are the four commitments made by everyone who joins the church as part of our membership vows. If you are a member of this church, at some point, you stood in front of the congregation, and answered the question: "Will you be a faithful member of this congregation, participating actively and responsibly in its worship and mission, through your prayers, gifts, study and service?"
So each year, throughout the year, Commitment Sunday is our way of remembering and renewing those commitments we made when we became a part of this family, this community of faith.
And today we're talking about a commitment to give. To give what? Well, originally it was fruit. Did everyone remember to bring your apples, oranges and cantaloupes today?
In our scripture passage from Deuteronomy, the ancient Israelites were directed by God to "take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground," to "put it in a basket" and take it to the place that "God will choose as a dwelling for his name" (in other words, the temple, which is the ancient equivalent of the church.).
Later in Deuteronomy, we learn that it's not just fruit, but also grain, livestock, milk, honey, and anything that is produced by this land you have been given. For an agricultural people, that's pretty much everything. For us today, it's the fruit of our labor, our work (whatever that may be) that belongs to the God who, just like he did for the Israelites, gives us the land in which we live, and who gives us the skills and talents by which we make our living.
So we give part of that back to God. How much? Deuteronomy just says "some." Other parts of the Old Testament suggest 10 percent, and then there's that Jesus guy in the New Testament who suggests 100%.
There's a story about a young couple, who, when they first got married, made a promise to God and their church that they would always give 10% of everything they had. Well, at first, that wasn't much, really only a few dollars each week. They were happy to do it. But God blessed them, and their fortune grew. Soon, that 10% was hundreds of dollars per week, and then thousands. When it got to be tens of thousands each week, they met with their pastor and said, "You've got to help us, we just can't do it anymore!" The pastor immediately got down on his knees and prayed to God. After he was finished, they asked, "Did you pray that God would let us off the hook?" "No," said the pastor. "I prayed that God would reduce your income back down to what it was when you were still comfortable giving 10%.
Here at First Presbyterian Church, we don't specify an amount or a percentage that you should give--that's between you and God--but a good rule of thumb is that it should be something meaningful to you--not so big that it jeopardizes your family, but also not so small that you can just forget about it, like a tip at a restaurant.
Deuteronomy also teaches us that our gift to God should be our "first fruit." What does that mean? Too often, I think we squeeze our charitable giving into the last part of our budget--as in, "my house costs this much, by car costs this much, my bills cost this much, then if there's anything left over at the end, I'll give that to God.
Deuteronomy flips that, and says decide what you are going to give to God first, and then let what you have left over determine what kind of house you live in, what kind of car you drive, what kind of life you live. You might be surprised at the quality of life that results from truly putting God first, above all those other things.
One last thing I want to point out, that hasn't changed from the time of ancient Israel to the present day: When you bring your basket full of of first fruits, grains and produce to the temple, what happens to it? What does God use it for?
Verse 10: You shall set it 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.
The obvious answer is celebration. But couldn't you have done that on your own? If everyone kept all of their fruit, wouldn't it be easier to celebrate? Well, actually not for everyone. There are two groups of people mentioned in the very last verse: The Levites and the aliens who reside among you. These two groups are excluded from the requirement to bring first fruits, but then are included in the celebration at the end, the sharing of all the produce? Why is that?
The Levites are the temple priests, who gave up their inheritance in order to serve God, take care of the temple, and serve the people of Israel. The aliens are those who are guests, travelers, or refugees who live among the people but don't have the same rights as the people, including the right to own land or produce anything profitable.
So when you give to the church today, you are basically sharing with those same two groups: Pastors, missionaries, church staff who have all voluntarily laid aside the opportunity to seek personal profit, and instead use their skills and talents to serve God, the church and the community. Those are the modern-day Levites.
The other group is the "aliens who reside among us." The poor, the destitute, the homeless, the mentally ill, and all of those who, for whatever reason, are unable to do, to be, to take advantage of the opportunities the rest of us take for granted. These are the people the church is called to take care of, the ones Jesus called "the least of these my brothers and sisters."
When you make a commitment to give to the church, you are essentially setting a few extra places at the banquet table; inviting a few more people to the celebration. That's probably a good thing to remember this week, of all weeks, as we prepare our Thanksgiving feasts with family and friends.
As you sit down to the table this Thanksgiving, as you give thanks for all the blessings God has placed in your lives, I hope that First Presbyterian Church will be counted among them--its people, its mission, its work in the community and world these past 134 years, the faith we teach, the hope we proclaim, and the love we share. I hope you'll set a place for us, and give thanks.
On behalf of First Presbyterian Church, happy thanksgiving--and thanks...for giving.