I am sure you know the expression, “preaching to the choir.” When a person is “preaching to the choir” they are speaking to people who already agree with what they are saying.
I thought of that expression as I was preparing for today. This is “Dedication Sunday.” We will be presenting our Time and Talent Questionnaire forms and our pledge cards today in this service of worship. This is our act of dedication to God. It is not an initiative, on our part, but rather a response. It is a response we make, born out of gratitude to God.
And that is what made me think of that expression. I wanted to talk about gratitude, and as I pictured you all, coming up to drop the papers in the baskets, I thought “I am going to be preaching to the choir. I know these people; everyone of them, I believe, is a person of deep gratitude.”
You all are generous people too. Over the years you have responded to God’s generous giving to you by giving back to God. That is why this church is here. This is who we are. Generosity is simply a natural by-product of gratitude.
And we come by this habit of gratitude honestly. It is a faith-family trait that, like freckles or blue eyes, is handed down through the generations in the family of faith. Our reading from the Hebrew Bible was taken from the story that set in motion this family trait.
The story is about the Hebrew people, receiving instructions and guidance from Moses. The setting is in the wilderness, where they have been now for 40 years, just before they cross over the Jordan into the promised land. Moses gives them instructions about many aspects of their life as a covenanted community that they are expected to put into practice as soon as they get settled in the land.
Here is the plan. They will each receive a portion of land to live on. They are agricultural people, for the most part. They will all work hard — that is simply a given. They will be responsible to provide for their families. They will feed the animals, plow the land, plant the seed, prune the vines, and then wait.
And then the spring will come, and the cows will calve and the ewes will lamb. And a few months later, in autumn, the grain will be white, the figs, the grapes and the olives will be plump, all ready for harvest. And in the mean time, there will have been days of sunshine and days of rain.
And as the lambs are born, as the juice is squeezed from the clusters, as fresh bread is taken steaming from the oven, they will know who to thank for the amazing goodness of the earth. They are to, “praise God, from whom all blessings flow.”
So, the practice of bringing in a tithe as a sign of gratitude for God’s generosity was born. Moses tells the people how to enact in liturgy what they feel in their hearts. They will present the tithe every year to the priest in Jerusalem and they will recite a script that sums up their family story.
“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt… When the Egyptians treated us harshly, …we cried to the LORD…; the LORD heard our voice …and brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, …and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.””
I love the fact that the time of offering was a time of family story-telling. Just like the Israelites, we can look back on where we have come from, what we have gone through, and where we ended up today, and give thanks to God. Each of us has a story – you have your own story to tell. And today as we come bringing our pledges and questionnaires, we will be bringing our expressions of gratitude, our response to God for bringing us to this day in our own personal stories.
Moses said that when the Israelites brought their first fruits and recited their family story, the offering was to be followed by a feast — a party! (We just had our church Thanksgiving feast last Wednesday, and it was a wonderful celebration of gratitude to God.) It was necessary, Moses said, that the Hebrew people remember to invite to the feast the people who might not have enough: the Levites and the resident non-Israelite people, the aliens neither of whom possessed land of their own.
Gratitude becomes Generosity
The other part of Moses’ instruction was about a slight variation to this law of the tithe. Every third year, instead of bringing the firstfruits to the temple, the people brought them to a collection center in their own towns. This was a humanitarian aid provision. Moses said, it was to be given:
“to the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows, so that they may eat their fill within your towns”
Gratitude to God naturally included generosity, specifically including generous help to those in need. The covenant community was bound together by mutual responsibility and compassionate intervention on a community-wide level.
This is the pattern we follow too. We set aside a real tithe of the money we receive from your tithes and offerings to go to missions. We support, for example, the Christian Service Center which provides help for people in our community.
We support the Children’s Home which takes care of people in the “widows and orphans” category. This is our family trait: people of gratitude, being generous, being compassionate, responding to human need. As I said, I am preaching to the choir.
Times of Plenty, Times of Scarcity
Now, I want to pause and ask a question. When we picture the Israelites coming to present their first-fruit tithes, what are we imagining? I picture a bright sunny fall day. I picture well-fed, healthy people arriving in families, content that the barn back home is full, the larder is stocked, and the family is well prepared for the winter ahead. I am sure that sometimes that picture fit their reality.
But sometimes not. In fact many times not. There were times of famine in the land. There were times of locust plagues. And then there were times of war. Lots of times of war. Even civil wars. And, then there were the two great wars they lost; the wars with Assyria and Babylon which forced the remnant survivors out of the land, entirely.
By the time we get to Jesus, over a thousand years after Moses gave his first-fruit tithe instructions, the situation is rather desperate for most Israelites. It is the time of the Roman occupation. Most people are peasants. The majority are landless. Many work as day-laborers, harvesting someone else’s grain and stomping out the landlord’s grapes.
It is in the context of scarcity that Jesus met with the crowd on the hillside in Galilee, and taught them about how to be a covenant community in their context. He has been teaching all day and curing their sick, as Matthew tells it. He is motivated by his compassion for them. Times are difficult.
He realizes that by this point in the day, they are hungry. Collectively their resources amount to “five loaves and two fish.” All that, among thousands of people.
The point is that this is not a time of happy abundance; this is a time of scarcity on a wide scale. No one has enough.
And in this time of scarcity, Jesus takes what little is there, and gives thanks. Gratitude to God. It’s not a big basket of firstfruits in his hands, and there is no full barn to back it up. But, there he is, surrounded by real people in need. So, he takes what he has, gives thanks, and starts sharing it out. Gratitude followed by generous giving — even in the context of scarcity.
Gratitude and Generosity in our Context
I do not know how you are feeling about your situation right now. For some of us, this is a time of plenty, for others, scarcity. Some of us are somewhere in between; doing okay today, but one calamity away from potential ruin.
But whatever our situation, we are here to do what Jesus taught and what the people of faith inherited from Moses: to show our gratitude to God. All of us can celebrate God generous gifts to us: the gift of life itself; the gift of a community of faith in which to gather and be encouraged on our journeys; the gift of hope, and love and beauty and music; the gift of freedom and the amazing gifts of science, medicine and technology we all benefit from; the list we all share can go on an on.
And those who have journeyed deeply in the spiritual world have born witness to other sources of reasons for gratitude as well. They have been able to discern that even the times of scarcity that they have endured, the calamities, the days of darkness , the times of grief, were also, ultimately, sources of good in their lives. Not that the situations they went through were good, but that from them, new goodness grew.
One who came to this understanding was Dag Hammarskjold. He wrote a prayer that I find quite difficult to pray, but want to someday be able to say from a full heart to express this depth of gratitude and insight:
“For everything that has been,
For everything that will be,
The dedications we make today are both our response of “thanks” and our “yes” to God, the giver of all good gifts. This is our time of gratitude, and our responsive generosity.