Deuteronomy 26:1-11 ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ Feb. 4, 2018
January is over…it is now February. So if you have neglected a few of your New Year’s resolutions made last month ~ that’s OK. If we have not followed through with the best of intentions made to walk more or eat less or take on that new task, we are forgiven. And, frankly, thank goodness the guilt of January is now over with our calendars flipping into a fresh new month. But, I would suggest, that even though we don’t always follow through perfectly, evaluating and planning to live in ways that are more in line with our hopes and beliefs is a good thing. And if you have made a few steps in the right direction, that’s a very good thing, isn’t it? Along those lines, I wonder…have you ever considered what your ‘spiritual credo’ is? Have you ever considered and / or evaluated your personal spiritual creed? Finding an awareness of what shapes your personal understanding of who God is? How we are called to live? Why we exist in the world? Have you ever considered what it would mean to be a “Fruitful Christian”?
The consideration I am proposing is a personal evaluation we might make as a person of faith that, of course, evolves over time ~ but throughout the evolution of our living ~ provides the ground under which our lives evolve and unfold. I would like to suggest that our topic this morning ~ stewardship ~ when understood biblically, is precisely this spiritual quest of discerning what it means, uniquely in your, to engage in “Fruitful Living”. I am aware that stewardship is not a popular topic. Stewardship is one which people think is ‘only about money’ ~ and some of you might even recall (what in my opinion are) long and drawn out campaigns that seem like more of a ‘shake down’ on parishioners than a worship service. Other people believe that, just like conversations about sex, politics, or the Superbowl (which kicks off in 4.5 hours), conversations of stewardship have no place in the pulpit. I would like to unpack some of these misconceptions a little this morning as we consider stewardship and promise not to make any more references to this afternoon’s game!
As I was suggesting that it is good spiritual practice to consider evaluating our ‘spiritual credo’, when we turn to the text before us, we find some of the spiritual credo of the Israelite people. Deuteronomy is referred to as the “second law” and is comprised of the teachings of how the Hebrew people might find restoration of the covenantal relationship with God ~ how they might, once again, be righteous with God ~ how they might move towards the idealized connection they once had in Eden again.
The text contains two declarations. The first half is a declaration of how the land is a gift from God. If we miss it the first or the second time, the listener eventually gets it as the Deuteronomist repeats it six times! Some people kiss the ground or plant a flag upon the land as they acknowledge it; however, this is a sense of true devotion and gratitude to God for this gift. The reference is made to having come from ancestors who were “wandering Arameans”. They remember back to the days when they had no land in their possession; when they were vulnerable and lacked the means to survive from a land that was rich and fertile. They remembered Jacob who wandered, eventually seeking refuge in the land of Egypt. God’s provision of a land “flowing with milk and honey” was fulfillment of God’s promise to provide and protect them. When we talk about “The Holy Land”, we understand that it is holy precisely because it is that which was a gift of God’s provision. A gift of safety, a gift of stability, a gift of a future. To visit the ‘Holy Land’ is a requirement (whenever possible) for the Muslim people ~ making the Hajj, as they call it. I wish there was also a similar type of requirement for Christians, for to journey to the Holy Land is to behold the fertile land with perfect agricultural conditions: where fruit of the ground sprouted, where faith grew, and where God truly did provide. If you feel like breaking out into a round of the sung grace “Johnny Appleseed”, it would be very appropriate: ‘Ooooh, the Lord is God to me, and so I thank the Lord, for giving me the things I need: the sun and the rain and the appleseed. Oh, the Lord’s been good to me”.
The second declaration begins half way through our text and contains the teaching and liturgical practice of how we are to respond to God’s priceless gift of safety and sustenance. This is a hard switch for us, I think, because we have been taught to believe that we are ‘self-made’ individuals, who make it or break it on our own. And we certainly should lift up and admire people’s efforts and determination in living out their dreams and goals; however, this text calls us to an acknowledgement of God’s grace and gift that must balance one’s understanding of one’s achievements with God’s provisional grace. I love the practice of First Nations hunters who give God thanks for the life of the animal that they have been blessed to hunt. After all the learning they did as a child, the patient hunting and stalking of their prey that leads to the successful kill, the first thing the hunter does is bow down on their knees and give thanks to God. I’m sure there will be a few football players who will make a dramatic catch in the end zone today ~ after years of practicing and training, after a grueling game that drains them physically and psychologically, they will make the catch and the first response is to humbly bow down and take and knee, point to the heavens and thank God ~ but alas I promised to not make any references to the Superbowl so I’ll stop there.
In the case of the Israelites, their action of appreciation was to take the first of the fruit of the fields ~ the first crop ~ and before they did anything with it, they were to take it to the temple where the priest would receive it and distribute it to the poor, the widows and the orphans. Obviously, we don’t live in an agriculturally based society anymore where we trade apples for wheat for meat, so this text might need some updating for modern ears. What I think this text calls for, is for us to make a conscious commitment to sharing the bounty that we have with others in the world. It is a reminder that God had a hand in blessing us with everything we have, and we are called to turn around and bless others with a portion of what we have received. In stewardship terms, we talk about our time, talents and treasure being things that God has blessed us with and it becomes our responsibility, as stewards of these resources to turn a portion of them back into the world as a blessing to others. The stewardship questions are: how are each of us using our time, not just for ourselves and those we love and care about, but in service of others. How are we using our talents, our unique gifts, strengths and abilities to bless others? How are we using our treasure ~ our money ~ to bless others? These are tough questions to ask, and perhaps that’s why we don’t like to talk about stewardship very much. It’s much easier to speak of the pastoral components of our faith ~ the way God comforts us in our times of need ~ than to think about the ways we are charged to live out our faith. And let’s face it, who among us has extra time, or talents or treasure lying around that they are happy to part with?
What I’d like to suggest as being the greatest challenge to stewardship is that we usually come at it from the wrong perspective. We approach stewardship from a ‘scarcity mindset’ rather than from one that first acknowledges the bounty we have. This text is where the term “first fruits theology” originates. The Israelites are charged to harvest the crops of the field in thanksgiving for the bounty through which God has blessed them, and then to take some of these ‘first fruits’, before anything else is done with them, and see that they are distributed to the needy. Before the crops are harvested and the party commences, they are charged to share with others in need. I think, in a modern day context, we too are also charged to consider the needs of the community around us, the church, and those other causes we passionately believe in before we begin moving on with the day in and day out living of our lives. I have this powerful memory of my Grandfather sitting at his desk writing cheques and paying bills at the beginning of the month. He called me over… “Scotty, do you know what I’m doing? I’m paying the bills for the month. The heat, the hydro, the mortgage…but do you know what cheque I write first? I write a cheque to the church because before we think of ourselves and our own needs, we think of God and the work of the church”. I still have Grandpa’s desk in my own home and I remember his wise words of stewardship. And whether it is a religious organization or an environmental organization or other philanthropic group that we feel passionate about supporting, the call in this text is to receive God’s blessed bounty and, before we do anything else, return a portion back as a blessing to the world.
Early in the reflection, I mentioned that there are ‘no-no’ topics in church that some believe should be avoided…like this morning’s topic. And perhaps you might wish we had focused on politics or sex or even the Superbowl, but I think this is such a significant faith consideration to shed light on ~ if only just as a reminder for each of us, sort of a ‘once a year stewardship tune-up’ ~ of our call to spend a little time considering our ‘spiritual credo’ ~ to consider how we are called to live, why we exist, and what it means to be a fruitful Christian. I constantly have newer people ask me questions of stewardship: How much money should I place on the offering plate? How much time should I give? How should I use my gifts in service? My response is always this: the answer to those questions will be found between you and God. They are stewardship questions that require us to prayerfully consider our spiritual credo and how we are, at this point in our journey, are called to share our time, talents and treasure. And so, I will get out of the way and leave you alone with the Holy One to answer these spiritual questions as we move ahead into this New Year.