Scripture Lesson: Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Sermon: First Fruits
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
This week we celebrate the holiday associated with the iconic image of the Pilgrims and the Indians feasting together. It is a day to revel in the abundance of our life and legacy on these shores.
But the beautiful image can overshadow the deprivations and desperation of the Pilgrims as they came to this land. There is an old tradition of starting the meal on Thanksgiving with five kernels of dried corn on each plate at the table. This was to serve as a reminder of the hardships faced by the Pilgrims, including the very real threat of starvation.
The Pilgrims left England in the face of religious conflict which had degenerated into violence, torture, imprisonment, and banishment. Like many immigrants today, they were driven by desperation to emigrate. They thought they could start a new life in Holland, so they headed there even though the language and culture were completely unfamiliar. There were difficulties adjusting to this new homeland, but the younger people began to completely assimilate and the elders realized their community and religious expression was in danger of being swallowed up by Dutch culture, so they determined to head to the New World, new, that is, to Europeans, and start afresh.
The journey to North America was fraught with hardship from the very beginning. The Pilgrims started out in two ships but the smaller one proved not to be seaworthy and had to turn back. On the winter crossing of the ocean, the other ship, the Mayflower, was beset with cross winds and severe weather. Many of the travelers were terribly seasick. When they got to North America, they were initially greeted with snow and rain and a hostile indigenous population. They searched for a safe haven. The mast and rudder of the ship broken, the boat was lost. There was no turning back from these forbidding shores.
The Pilgrims finally arrived at Plymouth on December 11, 1620. Just 4 days before the landing, Dorothy Bradford, spouse of Willam Bradford, drowned. Bradford was soon to become governor after the first governor, John Carver, died, five months into office. During that first winter, half of the Mayflower group died, not of the violence that they faced in England, but from lack of food and water, exposure to the elements and to unknown diseases. They were literally saved by the local indigenous population. The Pilgrims celebrated surviving their first year with a festival of food and games with their native saviors.
No ship for a return voyage. Half the people dead. At the mercy of the local population. It was so bad, that just being alive seemed like a miracle. Now let me ask you, does that sound like a win to you? Hardly. But this week, we will celebrate the persistence of those Pilgrims coming to a new land, depending on the indigenous people, and forming a new society with a religious foundation. We are heirs of their efforts. Heirs as a nation and also as a church since the United Church of Christ traces its roots back to the Pilgrims.
The Pilgrims saw themselves as heirs of the tradition of the people of Israel, brought out of slavery in Egypt to settle in a new land. The scripture that we heard this morning from Deuteronomy tells of the beginning of the settled life of the Israelites as they put down roots and establish a new society. Deuteronomy tells of the process of setting up a new community and the customs, rituals, and practices that will shape this new society. As they begin their settled life together, they are commanded by God, the God that has brought them this far on the way, to bring a basket of the first fruits of the land to the temple as part of the annual harvest festival. All of their eating and drinking and harvest festivities are fine, but they are to be sure to bring a basket of produce to the priest for the altar. This is not a request or a recommendation. It is not a suggested donation. This is not a charitable donation or philanthropy or a gift out of the generosity of the heart. It is a requirement. Like taxes. A commandment.
Now why would this be so important? God does not need the food. Yes, it was used to feed the temple servants and the orphans, widows, and resident aliens, but it is not put across as helping the poor, to so speak. There are other commandments about that. This is a basket of the first fruits at harvest demanded of the people of God who live in the land God has given them.
Surely as the people wandered in the wilderness, they knew their dependence on God. And as they were brought into this new land, they knew they needed God. But now that they are getting established and forming a society, things will change. As a community forms a culture, prospers, and grows into a nation, there is always the temptation to grow “fat and sassy.” A thriving nation can grow arrogant and puffed up with self importance. They can see their success as their due.
A thriving society can easily forget about God. Forget about the land and Creation that sustains them. Forget their dependency. Forget that they are not self sufficient.
We know about this proclivity. We know the temptation to become self satisfied and think that our success is purely of our own making. It is easy to adopt the assumption that we are in control.
That one basket of the fruit of the land, brought to the priest to be placed on the altar at the harvest festival, that one simple requirement was an act of resistance against the delusion of self-sufficiency, of self importance, and of independence.
That one simple commandment, to bring an offering of produce, is to be a reminder that all of the success and prosperity of the people is dependent on the gifts that they have been given. Access to: Land. Water. Animals. Life. Creation. Consciousness. Creativity. All of this is received by humanity. We do not create it. We are not responsible for its existence. We are not responsible for our own existence. We are completely dependent on the web of life. We are dependent on each other. We must live in cooperation, mutuality, and respect if we are to survive.
Just the basket of fruit. The produce of the land. The act of making an offering of
thanksgiving. It is demanded because it is a powerful antidote to the venom of pride and the delusion of being self made.
Our Ritual of Thanksgiving this morning, our tithes and offerings brought to the altar each week, are not simply a nice gesture of generosity out of the goodness of our hearts. This is an act of grounding ourselves in a reality that is honest about all that we are given. It is a command that forces us to stay situated in a framework that tells the truth about all that we receive. It is a powerful way of symbolizing that we know we are not self made, we are not self sufficient, we are not independent. We are all beneficiaries of the blessings of Creation. All gifts. Freely bestowed upon us. And which we humbly acknowledge in gratitude.
Governor Bradford of the Pilgrim community knew this command to give first fruits: to acknowledge the source of life and all that sustains it. He knew of the Pilgrims’ dependency. His words remind us of our need to celebrate all that we have been given and to acknowledge all that is made possible for us. Upon arriving in New England, Bradford makes this offering:
“For summer being done, all things stand upon them [the Pilgrims] with a weatherbeaten face; and the whole country, full of woods and thickets, represented a wild and savage hew. If they looked behind them, there was the mighty ocean which they had passed, and was now as a maine bar and gulf to separate them from all the civil parts of the world. . . What could now sustain them but the spirit of God and his grace?” [Cited in At All Times and In All Places, Vincent Wayne Leaver, p. 85]
May our thanksgiving be a radical act of resistance to the selfishness, smug superiority and exclusivism, the self absorption and individualism that plagues our times. May we be joyful in our mutuality and celebrate our dependence on Nature – air, water, soil, plants, animals, beauty consciousness, creativity. Gifts freely offered from the hand of Love. Amen.
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.