A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley by Andrew McKearney on 26 September 2021.
In our first reading from the book of Deuteronomy, 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. As they present their gift they are to recite a sort-of-creed or confession of faith telling their story from their origins, ‘a wandering Aramean was my ancestor’, right the way through to the land that they have now harvested, ‘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 the people’s response – that’s the shape of biblical faith.
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.
It was to be the ‘first fruits’ – that’s important because it says something about priorities. Bring the first fruits not the tail end or the leftovers. Bring the first fruits as a symbol of how you intend to live your life. That’s the significance of that little word ‘first’.
So presenting their offering in worship didn’t end the matter – their response to God was to spill over into the way that all of life was to be lived before God:
‘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 who couldn’t bring a basket of first fruits because they didn’t own land.
The Levites were called to serve God. They performed the religious rituals and officiated in the temple. They weren’t allowed to have any business interests or any land because it was feared these might distract them from their calling. So 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 at the mercy of the host community, and as a consequence they were even more vulnerable. The same is always true. Even as a tourist you get a taste of this vulnerability when you don’t know the language, the laws, the customs, the places to avoid, the things not to do.
And the Bible is utterly consistent: that 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 those with land and wealth.
Jesus inhabits this same mindset of living life as a gift to be received from a loving God and lived generously. That’s not going to pay the rising gas prices, I hear you say – and maybe it won’t.
But as with that little word ‘first’ that we explored in our Old Testament reading, that same word ‘first’ occurs in our Gospel reading too: ‘Strive first for the kingdom of God.’
So again it’s about getting our priorities right – keeping our attention focussed and not letting ourselves getting too caught up in the worries and anxieties of life.
Easier said than done – I know.
But we come here week be week to do that re-focussing, that re-prioritising; 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 fall a little more into place.
That’s something of what Jesus means when he says: ‘Strive first for the kingdom of God… and all these things will be given to you as well.’
Parents in particular will recall the moment when their baby first smiled at them. After goodness knows how many smiles from us as parents, finally a smile comes back, a moment of recognition.
The gift of love is first received by the baby from the care of father, mother, and all those around them, and the baby gradually learns to respond to this.
And that’s how faith is, according to the Bible.
God’s loving initiative, God smiling at us time and again, until finally we respond and smile back; and, as we know, it’s transformative.