When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “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.” When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God, you shall make this response before the LORD your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.” You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your 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.
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Around this time of year, when throngs of people are packing into churches (or not) and marking themselves with ashes (or not), there is this commentary that seems to creep up over and over again—and it goes something like this:
“Does your church do ashes?” Yes, we do.
“Isn’t that…well…a little ritualistic?” Not really. It’s a practice that helps us draw closer to God.
“Seems awfully religious to me. I mean, I like God and all, but it seems like the church likes rules more. Seems like y’all are going through the motions and not actually doing anything.” Grrrrrrrrrrrrrr……………*sigh*
All this gets back to a conversation we started together on Ash Wednesday with our friends at Warminster UCC. Pastor Josh preached and he proposed that the biggest problem that the church faces is authenticity. He pointed out that those who are suspicious of religion and Christianity often are pretty knowledgeable about what we believe, and are often spiritual people themselves. But they look at the church and see lives that do not reflect the claims of Jesus.
It’s an authenticity problem.
Now there is some good news and some not so good news, and that is that when we look back on the story of God’s people in the Bible, we quickly realize that the people of God have always struggled with authenticity. Long before Jesus, the prophets were pointing out that our ritual is empty unless it is for something (see Isaiah 58:1-12). And that something is the righteousness of God.
So when Jesus stands before the crowds of people and preaches about empty ritual in the sermon on the mount, he isn’t breaking from tradition. He isn’t saying something that the people haven’t heard. No, like any good preacher, he is standing within his own faith tradition and proclaiming a truth that we humans just can’t seem to hear enough: that faith is only meaningful when it is AUTHENTIC.
But how are we supposed to be authentic, you may ask? In the time of hipsters and artisanal pickles, isn’t everyone striving to be the most authentic they possibly can be? Isn’t it awfully easy for “authenticity” just to become another badge we proclaim pridefully—“we are more authentic than YOU are!”
The answer is pretty simple. And it is found in our Scripture this morning.
Consider Deuteronomy 26. Now this text is on the tail end of the covenantal law, which, I will be the first to admit, is probably one of the driest parts of the Torah. Move over Leviticus! Deuteronomy, with its detailed dimensions for tents and poles and copper bowls HAS YOU BEAT.
But there is also a lot of important information in Deuteronomy about how we are to live.
If you can make it through the lists of families and the dimensions of the tent of meeting, you get some pretty neat advice on how we are to live together. And all of it is in the context of faith and fidelity to God. In other words, living authentically.
The passage in question this morning deals specifically with rules regarding something called the First Fruits offering. Now, there are lots of offerings that can be made to God in the ancient Hebrew religion—there are sin offerings and guilt offerings, tithe offerings and peace offerings. I could go on. The First Fruits offering is given at the beginning of the harvest and given with gratitude to God for the gifts that we receive.
But Moses isn’t satisfied just with the giving. Moses (and God too!) wants us to remember why we give. And so, in Deuteronomy, we are told that those who give a first fruits offering should approach the priest with these words:
A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.”
Sounds like an awful lot of ritual, right? Imagine having to memorize those lines– it’s a lot longer than the Lord’s Prayer, to be sure! But let us also consider what the ritual is for. Throughout this proclamation, the people are asked to refer to themselves in the following ways:
-a wandering aramean: in ancient times these were a nomadic, landless people.
-an alien: again, outside of any nation or community of belonging
-a foreigner: have we gotten the point yet that the people of Israel have no place to call home?
-few in number: did I mention they were a small group of people?
-treated harshly and afflicted: oh yes, and they get trampled on by other people on a regular basis.
I assume we have picked up on the intended point: that the people of God aren’t much to look at on their own. They have no nation, they aren’t terribly large, and they are functionally powerless as other nations abuse and misuse them.
As they prepare to offer their gifts, the people of God are reminded first and foremost not of their own awesomeness, or power, or might—instead, they are called to reflect on their vulnerability and weakness. They are reminded of just how little we have on our own.
But that is not the end of the story.
For these powerless people depend on a God who:
-hears us: we are not alone!
-sees us: we do not suffer without witness!
-brings us out of our affliction with terrifying displays of power, with signs and wonders: Our God is invested in our well-being, and will do anything to protect us.
-gives us landless people a home and citizenship in a new land: God will bring us out of our poverty and our homelessness and give us a place to call our own!
Have we figured it out yet?
Alone, we are weak and exposed; with God, we are safe and secure.
Here is the kicker: this ritual isn’t for the benefit of other people. It isn’t religious theatre, not for the benefit of the crowds who gather or for the priests who receive the offering. Rather, this ritual is the for the benefit of the giver. This ritual is meant to put us squarely where we need to be: in a posture of humility.
Jesus will later expound on this further—he will remind us that when we give alms, or pray, or fast, we must remind ourselves whom these practices are for—they aren’t for the benefit of others seeing what good Christians we are. They are for the benefit of our relationship with God, and for the righteousness and justice of the world. When we are doing them correctly, they will have their source in humility.
Humility is a difficult concept to fully embrace, I know. It sounds an awful lot like subservience or weakness. And yet humility is the life that Jesus calls us to. Again and again, Jesus tells us that the last will be first, to take the less desirable seat at the dinner, to be meek, to be a servant, to pick up a cross, too pray for our enemies—and that through these humble actions, we will be lifted up.
Josh shared with us on Ash Wednesday about something he called the generosity paradox, that often it is in letting go of things that we gain something more. And I think that the same can be said of humility. Humility is a moral imperative of the Word of God, not because we are supposed to feel bad about ourselves, but because it makes room for others—the poor, the outcast, the stranger, the sick, even the enemy. When we operate from a posture of humility, we can let go of the need to always be right, always be first, always be stronger/wiser/richer/more powerful. Instead, we can free our hands to be generous: with our time, with each other, with our gifts and talents. Humility frees us to serve Jesus, who revealed to us the paradox that there is strength in weakness, and life in death.
Will you join me in a fast of humility? Will you follow Jesus? The way is long, but it is worth it.