A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley by Andrew McKearney on 25 September 2022
Our first reading from the book of Deuteronomy is wonderful. It embodies the fundamental dynamic of faith.And this always starts with God’s initiative, God’s graciousness, God’s mercy and love; and then follows our response to that by living generously.
We heard Moses tell the people of God that when they get to the land of Canaan they must keep a harvest festival each year.
At harvest time, each person is to bring a basket of his or her choicest produce to the house of God and present it to the Lord. And as they present their gifts they are to recite a sort-of creed or confession of faith telling their story fromtheir origins, ‘a wandering Aramean was my ancestor’, right the way through to the land that they’ve nowharvested, ‘a land flowing with milk and honey’.
Then in response to hearing their story recounted the worshipper offers their gift and says: ‘So now I bring the first fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.’ The basket is put in front of the altar and the worshipper bows down before the Lord.
It’s all about initiative and response. God’s initiative and our response.
In the affirmation of faith that we heard recited, God’s initiative was to free his people from their oppressors, the Egyptians, and to bring them into a land flowing with milk and honey.
And their response was to bring a basket filled with the first of all the fruit of the ground and offer it to the Lord in gratitude.
Initiative and response. Just as with a baby. Those of us who have ever been entrusted with the care of a baby will recall the moment when that baby first smiled at us. After goodness knows how many smiles from us, finally a smilecomes back.
The gift of love is first received from those around us, and gradually we learn to respond.
And that’s how faith works, according to the Bible. God’s loving initiative, God smiling at us time and again, until finally we respond and smile back. And as with a baby –it’s transformative!
In our first reading the response is not a smile, though it might have included that, but a basket filled with the first of all the fruit of the ground. And that says something about priorities – bring the first fruits.
But presenting their offering in worship didn’t end the matter – this response was to spill over into the way that all of life was to be lived before God – generously:
‘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 Levites and the aliens were singled out because they were two groups of people that couldn’t easily join in with a harvest festival because they didn’t own land.
The Levites were called to serve God. They performed the religious rituals and officiated in the temple. They were not allowed to have any business interests or any land because it was feared these things might distract them from their calling. It was the duty of the community to support them.
The foreigner or alien though was more powerless than the Levite. The Levite had a role in the community, not so the foreigner. The foreigner was completely at the mercy of the host community, and as a consequence very vulnerable.
The same is still true. When you don’t know the language, the laws, the customs, the places to avoid, the things not to do, you’re vulnerable.
And the Bible is utterly consistent.
All those on the margins of society, whether members of our own community or not, whether Levites or aliens, need to be provided for by the host community and particularly by those with land and wealth.
Jesus inhabits this same mindset of living life as a gift from a loving God and in response, living generously towards others.
That word ‘first’ that we noted in our Old Testamentreading, that same word ‘first’ occurs in our Gospel reading too: ‘Strive first for the kingdom of God.’
Time and again the scriptures invite us to get our priorities right – to keep our attention focussed and not to letourselves get overwhelmed by the worries and anxieties of life because that slams shut the doors of our heart.
So that’s why we come here, week by week, to re-focus andget our priorities right. And the more we do that on a daily basis at home as well as a weekly basis at church, then, please God, our worries and anxieties will lose something of their hold on us.
So we take to heart as best we can that deeply challengingsaying of Jesus:
‘Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness.’