Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Thanksgiving Offering

“When you come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance and have taken possession of it and live in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from your land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket, and you shall go to the place that the LORD your God will choose, to make his name to dwell there. And you shall go to the priest who is in office at that time and say to him, ‘I declare today to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our fathers to give us.’ Then the priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down before the altar of the LORD your God.

“And you shall make response before the LORD your God, ‘A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us and laid on us hard labor. Then we cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. And the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders. And he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which you, O LORD, have given me.’ And you shall set it down before the LORD your God and worship before the LORD your God. And you shall rejoice in all the good that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the sojourner who is among you.

(Deuteronomy 26:1-11 ESV)

The text above from Deut 26 is the Old Testament reading set aside to be read on Thanksgiving day. You may not be familiar with the origins of the observance in the United States. Although it originated long before is Massachusetts, it actually was not until 1863 that it was proclaimed a national holiday. Right in the midst of the Civil War Abraham Lincoln decried that the last Thursday of November be set aside to give thanks for “the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”

He also wrote, “The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.”

I believe president Lincoln identified a universal human characteristic when he said that we are prone to forget the source of our blessings. Americans today, amidst so much abundance, are prone to take God’s bounty for granted as if our food simply materialized on supermarket shelves. Ancient near eastern people had a much different but equally destructive tendency. While our culture takes food for granted, their culture lived in constant anxiety about whether or not the harvest would come. The Canaanite people that inhabited the promise land that the Israelites were coming into lived in a land of relative plenty and they attributed this to their fertility deities Baal and Asherah.

The perennial temptation of the Israelites when they came into the land would be too look to these deities for the blessing of a good harvest.

I wonder what our modern, American equivalents to Baal and Asherah are?

In our text the Lord reminds his people again and again that he is their God and not only has he given them the land, but he has also called them to be a people, rescued them from Egypt, and sustained them in the wilderness.

After the people come into the land and begin to enjoy its rich blessings, they are told they must acknowledge that what they enjoy is an inheritance from the Lord. This acknowledgement comes in the form of a prescribed liturgy consisting of two statements, and a thanksgiving offering followed by a celebration.

The first statement they are commanded to make is this, ‘I declare today to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our fathers to give us.’ They have no claim to the land apart from God. It is a sheer gift.

Ancient near eastern people considered the first fruits of the harvest sacred. For this reason, the Lord asks his people to bring them in a basket to his appointed priest at his appointed alter. It is an acknowledgment, a thanksgiving offering to the Lord, who is the source of all their blessings.

The second statement is a kind of creed that proclaims that they were homeless, sojourners in the land of Egypt and oppressed when the Lord lead them out of captivity, making them a people and giving them a rich and fertile land.

Having proclaimed the story of their salvation and election and presented a thanksgiving offering in worship to the Lord, it is time to party! The Levites and even the foreigners are to be included in the celebration. Why?

God has a soft spot for the poor and the homeless. In fact the passage following the one we have read, God commands that a tithe be paid not only to the Levites and the foreigners but also to widows and orphans. Whenever Israel tells their story they are to remember that they were sojourners—‘a wandering Aramean was my father.” When they were enslaved in the land of Egypt, God had pity on them and so they should have pity on the poor and homeless in their midst.

Likewise, we too have wandered far from our father’s house and fallen into the captivity of sin. The Lord had pity on us and sent his son Jesus Christ to rescue and redeem us. Should we not have pity on the lost and oppressed amongst us? Shouldn’t we remember God’s mercy and invite them to celebrate with us God’s sheer gift of grace?

The way we show our gratitude to God for what he has done for us is to do likewise for our neighbor. To use a popular expression of our day, “pay it forward.”

Abraham Lincoln understood this, which is why he concluded his Thanksgiving day proclamation in this way,

Set apart and observe the last Thursday of November, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to (the people of this nation) that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Greatest Amoung You

“Do as I say, not as I do!” You have probably heard that expression before, usually from a father to a son or daughter. When you think about it there is a certain arrogance to that expression. The person is basically saying, “Listen, I haven’t got a leg to stand on as an example but I insist on the right to tell you what is best. I can’t live up to these standards myself, but I expect them of you. I demand absolute respect, not based on my character, but on my position, my authority.

Jesus accuses the Scribes and Pharisees of the same kind of arrogance. Our text reads:

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ”The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

The Scribes and the Pharisees have a position of honor and authority as stewards and teachers of the law. They are keepers of a great treasure. Jesus recognizes this and commends it to us. “Practice and observe whatever they tell you,” he says.

We too are stewards of a great treasure, the Gospel. What Jesus says about the scribes and Pharisees is very relevant for those who hold positions of leadership and authority in the church, and for those of us who feel called to such positions. With such amazing privilege also comes very serious responsibility. We are called not only to teach what is true but also to live truthfully. The Scribes and Pharisees receive Jesus’ ire because they do not practice what they preach. “Do not do what they do,” Jesus says.

The Scribes and Pharisees have taken what God intended as a means of liberation—God’s laws and statutes—and they have made them into instruments of oppression. They lay heavy burdens on others, but not themselves. They are exacting when it comes to the faults of others, but are blind to their own. This is an extension of Jesus’ teaching from the Sermon on the Mount about first removing the log in one’s own eye before pointing out the speck in one’s brother’s eye.

They have things completely turned around. Instead of hating their own sin and showing grace and mercy to others, they are lovers of themselves while condemning others.

They allow the honor of their authority and the privilege of their position to turn into presumption. They have become proud and lord their power over others.

They do their deeds in order to be seen.

One of the major spiritual pitfalls of ministry is praise and recognition. Others begin to praise the minister as wise, capable, and godly, and as a result the minister becomes puffed up. This is due to our sinful nature. Deep down, we all are aware of our yawning need for forgiveness and blessing. Without an understanding of the Gospel, without the blessed assurance of our reconciliation with God, we are deeply insecure. For this reason, the human heart has an insatiable desire for praise. We make the honor that comes from people a substitute for the honor that comes from God.

The Scribes and the Pharisees seek their own glory above God’s. They exalt themselves and take great pride in receiving titles and honor from people.

This is why Jesus says, “you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ.”

Jesus doesn’t say this because there is something inherently wrong with the titles themselves. Jesus was fond of hyperbole. In this way, he was very much a man of his time and culture. He doesn’t mean that we should refrain from calling the man who sired us Father, any more than he intends us to literally cut off our hand if it causes us to sin, or refrain from inviting our friends or relatives when we throw a party.

What Jesus is doing is pointing out the titanic arrogance of glorying in these terms of status—rabbi, father, master—without deference to their true source in God. These titles do not properly belong to the Pharisees and neither does the glory. They lack the rabbi’s concern for his disciples, the father’s heart for his children, and Christ’s authority over his people. The scribes and Pharisees stand under God’s authority, shoulder-to-shoulder with the sinners they condemn.

Jesus ends by saying, “The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

Jesus himself is the greatest among us. Indeed the only one truly great. He is the teacher of righteousness and the heart of the father’s love. It is he who is the Christ and he who holds all authority. We can trust in the truth of his teaching, but also the truthfulness of his life. If we aspire to greatness, we should be imitators of him. He humbled himself and therefore he was exalted.

Although he was in the very form of God, he did not cling insecurely to that position, but humbled himself, becoming a servant.

Therefore, as those who seek to be leaders in his church, let that mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus. AMEN.