Sermon 11/24 Gifts of Gratitude

Date: Nov. 24, 2019 Thanksgiving Sunday
Scripture Lessons: Deuteronomy 26:1-11 and Luke 17:11-19
Sermon: Gifts of Gratitude
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

Really, what is God going to do with a shock of wheat? Or a pomegranate? Or an
olive? Even the people of Bible times didn’t expect their super hero-like God to
literally eat food. So we could easily pass over this ritual of the giving of first
fruits that we heard about from the book of Deuteronomy as something only for
olden times. And that would be our mistake.

In the brief eleven verses that we heard the word ‘gift’ is used six times. And every
time it is used it refers to God: God has given the land, God has given the harvest,
the food, the first fruits. God has given freedom from slavery, God has given
provision to a people who were once landless and destitute. These verses show
God as the giver, the generous giver of life, supporter of life, and giver of identity,
and hope. God gives. And people benefit from God’s giving.

The simple ritual of offering to God a basket of the first fruits of the land shows
this orientation toward life. Life is possible because of God and God’s gifts. The
giving of first fruits conveys this understanding of reality. And this is why they are
to do this. And it is as significant in the time of Deuteronomy and as it is in our
time of advanced technology and artificial intelligence.

The giving of first fruits is an affirmation that we are benefitting from what God
gives to us including the gift of life. The key idea is that we have been given life
and what is needed to sustain life, like land and plants for food, and freedom. We
have received this. And on this foundation, we base our view of reality, past,
present, and future, with a sense of gratitude and hope. This forms the identity of
the community.

This way of looking at life is very important. It shows that we are dependent on
God. We are alive because of what we have been given. There is no room for the
idea that we are self-made. That we have pulled ourselves up by our boot straps.
That we have succeeded through rugged individualism. That all that we are and all
that we have we have achieved ourselves. I have done it. I have made it happen. I
have earned it. Everything we do, and we can do a lot, can be done only because
of what we have already been given.

There is a story about a pastor who was new to town. She went to visit
someone from the congregation who was a farmer. The farmer showed the pastor
around the farm. The pastor commented about how God had been so good to the
farmer. God? the farmer replied. You should have seen this place when God had
it.

This is not the view we see in the first fruits story. The first fruits remind us that
the land itself was a gift to humanity. The farmer can only grow things because
God has created the land in the first place. He can only work the land because it
has been provided. Given.

When we think we are the ones fully responsible for the good things in life we get
a mistaken view of ourselves and others. And the idea that we are self made can
lead to another lie: The idea that if someone is not successful, not well-off, it is
their fault. They are not working hard enough or applying themselves. This view
of reality can also be false. In this country, we can see that past laws and policies
have favored white, male people. People of color and women were not given the
same rights as white men. And today we continue the process of changing that
system of inequality so that we might move closer to that more perfect union in
which there is liberty and justice for all in this country.

This simple ritual of giving first fruits that we hear about in Deuteronomy provides
a basic orientation toward reality that acknowledges all that we are given, simply
given. It is a celebration of the gifts we receive from God. This act takes power
away from the idea that we are self made. That we create the world. That we
deserve all the credit. The simple ritual of the giving of first fruits reminds us that
we have received gifts from God: the gifts of life and all that supports life. These
gifts are intended for all. Everyone is to benefit from the generosity of God not
just some people. With this orientation toward reality, we see the gifts around us.
We live breathing the air of blessing. We have a sense of abundance and hope.
This reality helps us to be generous because we realize that what we have is really
not ours, but has been given to us. And so we are freed to give and share.
There is no more scrambling to get mine, to protect what I have. There is no more
it all depends on me. I have to do it. I have to go it. Alone. There is no more ‘I’
at the center of my universe. The giver, God, is the center of our reality. And the
gifts are for everyone.

I have a book from my childhood called Me by William Saroyan. It was written in 1936. It goes like this:
“Once upon a time there was only one word – me. If you wanted to say here I am,
you said – me. And that’s how it was when you wanted to say give me the orange,
or look at the tree, or listen to the bird, or what is the moon.
“Some people said it in a loud voice; some people said it in a soft voice. Some
laughed, some cried. Some giggled, some sighed. Only people said it. Animals
said other things.

“The dog said bark bark, take me to the park park. The cat said purr purr, I am the
Queen, be kind to her. The cow said moo moo, I am a cow. What are you? The
horse said ha ha, there is my Ma, and there is my Pa. The pig said hunk a chunk of
pumpkin pie, you can watch me get fat – but you will never see me fly. The
caterpillar said I was never a cat and I never saw a pillar. I’m a soft green feller
with a belly full of filler. The butterfly said what I was I’ll never know. Watch me
stop, watch me go, unafraid in light or shade. The fish said hush in the water. I’m
waiting for a letter from my only daughter. Father or mother, each of the animals
said something or other. Other things said other things.

“The white rose to the red rose said hello there redhead. The lamppost said I’m the
most from coast to coast. The train said watch me go to Buffalo. . . . But people
went right on saying the only word they knew how to say – ME”

By the end of the book, people have progressed from the word me to the word no
and then on to many other words. [On a side note, there are only male humans in
the book. It is past time to move on from that male orientation.] But I think the
message of the book is that we need to move on from the word me; that I am the
center of life, that I matter most. We need to move on from a view of reality
centered on one person to a view of reality that is based on the universe, the entire
web of life, and all of humanity.

The giving of first fruits is a celebration of the whole creation and our place in the
world. It reminds us of all that we are given and that we are not in charge of
everything. We did not create the world and we did not give ourselves life. We
didn’t create plants for food so that we can live. All of this was given to us. And
just that simple ritual of giving first fruits is a celebration of all that has been given.
This creates a life orientation of abundance and generosity and community. It
opens us up to a bigger world view. It helps us see the goodness in life. It is an
antidote to stress, competition, and worry. When we see all we are given, we are
filled with awe and wonder. The simple ritual of first fruits, of gratitude, saves us
from thinking we have to do it all and connects us to abundance and blessing.
So this Thanksgiving, and every day, remember what we have been given. And
give. 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.

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