31 Oct Marks of a Pilgrim
Marks of a Pilgrim
October 28, 2018
M. Michelle Fincher
Calvary Presbyterian Church
When we left the Israelites last week, they had made the fateful and fatal decision to listen to the report of the majority of the spies—ten against two, if you recall—that fearfully advised that the Hebrews were not strong enough to stand up to the inhabitants of the Promised Land. That decision, an act of rebellion and faithlessness, condemned an entire generation of Hebrews to wander in the desert until the last of them died out and the next generation arose to take their places.
In our scripture passage next week, this new generation of Israelites will finally cross the Jordan River and enter the land promised to Abraham, but in today’s passage, there is still some unfinished business to attend to in preparation for receiving the gift of their new homeland. That’s what much of Deuteronomy is about—laying out the laws and instructions that are to guide the life of the community inside the land. The genius of the Deuteronomic code is that it combines communal observance with individual responsibilities. What God had done for Israel was the deliverance of an entire people, a community that was to be joined to God in faith. But in order to keep alive and in good repair the special relationship between Yahweh and Israel, each individual Jewish family was to relive, re-experience and reclaim God’s great redemptive acts for themselves. Individual faithfulness and the rites of the community bonded the people together before God, a bond that was and still is rooted in remembrance.
The remembrance that Israel is called to is a remembrance that begins with deep, personal identification. Every generation of Hebrews is to recall and recite the story of how they were given their inheritance. “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor,” they say. They begin by identifying themselves with Jacob, their vulnerable, destitute, homeless forefather who had sought refuge from famine in Egypt. Then they tell his story, remembering that “he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.” (Deut. 26:5)
But then it gets really interesting. The Israelites go on to say, “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.” Did you notice the shift? The people say, “When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord.” The Hebrews are not talking about Jacob anymore; they are talking about themselves. Even though none of this generation had personally experienced the Egyptian affliction, they remember it by inserting themselves in the story, making the pain of their ancestors their own. By their remembering, they bring an event from the past into the present, and they do it in such a way that it changes how they live here and now.
They are saying, in effect, “I, too, am a slave in Egypt” much like after the Virginia Tech shooting, people from all across the country said, “Today, we are all Hokies.”
Keep in the mind the context: God, through Moses, is instructing the people how they are to live in the land of promise, and that life, the receiving of God’s promise is to be grounded in their identity as a people who have suffered. But as they remember their own suffering, they discover that they are not alone in their pain and affliction, because they also remember that when they cried out to God, “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.” (26:7-8)
Though the life of promise is grounded in their suffering, suffering is never the end of the story because the people of God are never alone in their affliction. Not in ancient Israel. And not in the church today. When we call on the Lord, God hears us and is actively involved in our deliverance and redemption. So, the Israelites go on to recall that it was God who brought them to the Promised Land, who is giving them a “land flowing with milk and honey.” This land is coming to them as a gift, and they are to treasure it, care for it and protect it as the precious inheritance that it is.
It is as they remember and retell their story that the goodness and generosity of the Lord becomes clear. The Hebrews did not deliver themselves from Egyptian slavery; God did that. They did not provide manna and water in the desert for themselves; God did that. It is God who remained faithful in the face of Israel’s faithlessness and apostasy; it is God who keeps promises made; it is God who has journeyed with this people; it is God who loves with an everlasting, redemptive love. Simply put, there is no Hebrew story without God. God is there in their lives, sometimes in the background, sometimes more obvious, but always there, always present, constant and consistent, working on Israel’s behalf so that Israel’s God could be made known to the world.
In remembering and telling their story, the Hebrews respond in really the only way that makes sense. Realizing all over again how richly they have been blessed, how much they have received as pure gift from God’s gracious hand, how central to their well-being God is at every turn, they respond with gratitude and generosity of their own, bringing the first fruits of the harvest and giving it as an offering to God. And then, they bow down in worship.
In a couple of weeks, we will celebrate Stewardship Sunday, and here at Calvary it is a celebration. If you’ve never danced down a church aisle to present your pledge and offering to God, you’re in for a treat. It is one of my favorite Sundays of the year. But between now and then, I want to invite you to prayerfully remember your own story and how God’s grace and generosity permeates your life. I personally experienced this very thing unexpectedly this past week.
If you were here last Sunday you know that Angus “outed” me during prayer time, sharing that I was having a birthday on Monday which was true. On Monday I heard from an unusual number of people—relatives and friends from all over the country, including one friend from the 7th grade. I got cards and texts and emails and phone calls. It was a lovely day. Sometime in the early evening, I had the idea to open a bottle of champagne to toast another year and when I did, I realized that what I was really celebrating was God. I grabbed my journal and started thanking God for all the people who had reached out to me, for my family, for Calvary, and for the privilege of being part of the journey of faith of this congregation. I thought about the people who have helped me arrive at this point in my life—the teachers, the mentors, my parents and grandparents, all those who have encouraged me and believed in me even when I couldn’t see where God was leading me or how or why. As I wrote, I became acutely aware all over again of how blessed I am to love and be loved, to have meaningful work that I enjoy, to be healthy and able to work out, even though I hate it and complain about it. I experienced such a deep sense of gratitude swelling up within me that it almost hurt. I make it a point to express my thanks to God for his blessing every day in some way, but this was different. Rooted in my deepest memories, this was gratitude that profoundly impacted me, that was calling something from me, that needed a response. It made me aware that I wanted to give back in some tangible way.
I think something similar happens with the Hebrews. As they remember and retell their story, they become aware all over again of God’s grace and blessing which are woven like a golden thread throughout their lives. The only reason they are standing on the edge of the Promised Land is because of God. In fact, the only reason they are standing at all is because of God. They are thankful, and they respond with worship that includes making an offering from the best and first of God’s blessings to them. These are not leftovers, you understand; not table scraps; not disposable income; not what remains after all their other bills and obligations have been fulfilled. These are first fruits. The good stuff. The cream of the crop. A gift of thanksgiving so rooted in gratitude that it comes first, off the top.
For all the talk and misunderstanding during church stewardship drives about how money gets used in churches, this practice of first-fruits giving is a spiritual discipline that is actually about us; it’s for our good. Think about what kind of mindset—and what kind of heart disposition—it takes to practice giving away the best and first of what we have. It protects us against idolatry, for one thing, against allowing money, security and possessions to become what owns us, what drives us, what we measure ourselves and others by. It also layers generosity into the bedrock of our lives. We come to see that what we earn and what we have are not only blessings from God, they are means by which we can share God’s blessing with others. Money and possessions aren’t ends in themselves but are ways for us to care for other people like Jesus cares for them, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, delivering healing and hope to those who are sick and in despair.
Imagine driving to work thinking about ways you can spend what you earn to help someone else and getting more excited with every new idea you have. Imagine receiving your pension or Social Security check and feeling an over-whelming joy knowing that you can put that money to work for God’s kingdom. That’s the picture of what first-fruit giving is all about. It’s a celebration of God’s blessing as it focuses us on the truth that everything we have is God’s gift to us for the purpose of being a gift to others.
Is it any wonder, then, that first fruit offerings are accompanied by singing, dancing, feasting and worship—joy, joy and more joy—and that they are rooted in remembrance? Like the Israelites, when we remember and retell our own stories, God is everywhere, even though we’re not always aware of it, or appreciate it or follow God’s ways. But God is there nonetheless, calling and speaking, leading and loving, waiting and wooing. How can we help but respond with worship and joy-filled generosity of our own? God’s faithfulness permeates every day, every breath of our lives, and when we really “get” that, we will naturally respond like the Hebrews did, with joy and generosity that overflows. Thanks be to God. Amen.