Oct 27th | The Reverend Kevin Scott Fleming | Deuteronomy 26:1-11
One of the many benefits I have received from our interfaith partnership - especially with our Jewish sisters and brothers - is a new appreciation and understanding of the calendar. By knowing a little of when and what the Jewish holy days are about, we all can gain an understanding of what is going on in both the Old Testament and the New Testament - in the life of Israel and the life of Jesus and his church.
We have just completed the “high holy days” of Judaism - a term which appears nowhere in the Scriptures or in the Talmud. These holidays began on Rosh Ha-shanah - the beginning of the Jewish new year. Rosh Ha-shanah falls on the first and second days of the month of Tishrei - our September or October. Remember, this holiday is a lunar holiday, so it tends to be up to the moon, and whether or not it is a leap year, in order to nail down an exact date.
Then comes Yom Kippur. The the ninth day of Tishrei is known as Erev Yom Kippur, the eve of Yom Kippur, and is marked by the powerful ancient prayer of Kol Nidre. Beginning at the end of the Erev Yom Kippur service, Jews enter into a time of fasting that will continue until sunset on the following day. By the way, they attend 5 services throughout the day on Yom Kippur, so when we go twenty minutes longer on Christmas Eve you can just lighten up.
Eight days after Yom Kippur is the beginning of Sukkot - the feast of booths or tabernacles. This is the time when the sukkah is erected, to remind the people of the years spent on the Exodus from Egypt, when they had no permanent homes in which to live. It is customary to eat meals in the sukkah and to remember that Sukkoth was one of the pilgrim festivals in ancient Israel - a time when you were expected to make the journey to Jerusalem and the Temple.
After the eight days of Sukkot, there is a fantastic celebration known as Simchat Torah - rejoicing with the Torah. The prescribed weekly readings of the Torah have been completed over the last year and the scrolls of the Torah are removed from the Ark, unrolled, and danced with among the people. It is a joyous, sometimes raucous, service of grand celebration.
That is what the Jews have been doing for the last month or so. And that is why the rabbi looks so very tired.
Now, according to my brand new Torah Commentary (which you all so generously gave to me for Pastor Appreciation Day), the Hala-kah, which claims to preserve the oral tradition of the Jewish people beyond the Torah, says that the Feast of the First Fruits - about which we read in our passage from Deuteronomy - was a time for offerings to be brought to the Temple. These would be received from the time of the Feast of Weeks to the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles - Sukkoth. Offerings could also be taken to the Temple as late as Hannukah, though the recitation included in our passage would not be offered.
So, we’re right in the time of year when this practice of offering the First Fruits would have taken place.
The opening line tells us how to place this in time. “When you come into the land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance.” When you begin your life on the land, then do this, is the instruction.
But land, as we are reminded by so many Native American and indigenous peoples of other lands, is never something that can be privately owned, contrary to our capitalistic understandings. “The earth is the Lord’s,” the Psalmist reminds us and it most surely is. We did not make the land. God made the land and because God made the land, God owns the land. What we call “our land” is a gift from God.
The script in Deuteronomy makes it clear. The pilgrim goes to the priest who is in charge and says, “Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.” God has given me a gift and I have received God’s gift. That’s what it means. “The Lord’s been good to me…”
And then, a basket, or a container, holding as much as a sixtieth of the gathered crop, is given to the priest and the pilgrim says, “So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” “The Lord’s been good to me, and so I thank the Lord.”
It is that ancient act of remembrance and celebration that we are re-enacting today. We are stating that we - individually and collectively - we have received from God what is God’s alone. We are not pretending that what we have we have because of our own efforts and energies. What we have is a gift from God. We are saying, “the Lord’s been good to me.”
And in presenting our financial commitments - our pledges - for 2020, we are saying, “and so I thank the Lord.” This is our thanksgiving - our acceptance of God’s gifts - and our commitment to partner with God in a new year of ministry and mission. We are returning to God a portion - the first fruits - of what God has placed in our hands.
We are called to
“love the Lord our God with all our hearts, with all our being,
and with all our strength.”
We are reminded
“do not forget the Lord your God,
by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes which I am commanding you today...
[It was] the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions.
He made water flow for you from flint rock, and fed you in the wilderness with manna…”
The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully…
And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.
The Lord’s been good to us and so we thank the Lord.
We remember and we celebrate.
That’s where we’ve been this month.
That’s where we are now.
And that’s where we will be forevermore. Amen.