Sermon: "A Generous Memory" (God and Money Part 1), August 20, 2017

Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost
Rev. Ryan Slifka

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 labour 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.
— Deuteronomy 26:1-11 (New Revised Standard Version)

I remember long ago, before I was a card-carrying Jesus person. Way back in my first year of University I had a girlfriend (I know, it’s hard to imagine). And this girlfriend was unique. Because she was a faithful, committed member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Also known as the Mormons. I won’t go too deep in to detail about them here, you can look it up on Wikipedia, or a literal encyclopedia if you aren’t familiar. But Mormons are well known for taking the laws, the practices of their faith quite seriously. Church on Sundays, no friends or company over Sunday afternoons because it’s family time. No caffeine. No smoking. No drinking. No sex before marriage. Missions for each young man that are well known for annoying and freaking out the rest of us. They’re known for the things they are required to do. Or required not to do. Based on their faith.

One of the other things each member of the Church of Latter Day Saints is expected to do is tithe. To give ten percent of the money they make to the church. My Mormon girlfriend worked part time as a Subway sandwich artist. One day a week, so her take home minus deductions was like seventy-three dollars. And I joked with about her obligation to donate some of that money to her church, not expecting that even a true believer like herself would give if she had so little. She was a student, barely making any money. So it seemed ridiculous to me to waste what little she had on church. I’m sure the church would be fine without it. Besides, I’d rather her spend it wisely like I did—on beer. But as ridiculous as it seemed, she told me that she did, in fact, donate seven dollars and thirty cents of each week’s paycheque to the church. Even though she didn’t have much.

I thought it was ridiculous. To me it was just another tick box to win God’s favor. To me it seemed like legalism… just another religious obligation. One they’d use to guilt you with to make sure the church was packed with cash. How convenient. To give to the church before anything else not only seemed unfair. It seemed like a hardship. Like an unnecessary burden. Especially for people with little to give.

You can probably guess that this relationship didn’t last long. I never became a Mormon. And it was this sense of legal requirement that bothered me the most… the thing that kept me from considering Mormonism in the first place. Not just about giving, but about everything. In fact, it’s the thing that kept me from considering Christianity, let alone Mormonism in the first place. It was the legalism. Do this, do that, and then good God’ll bless you. Pay your dues, and you belong.

Now, obviously, something changed my mind about Christianity down the road. I am, after all, standing here as the head Jesus freak among Jesus freaks. Otherwise this would have been the worst beginning of a sermon about stewardship, about giving ever. And I still bristle at legalism, the notion that there’s anything we have to do, anything we can do, to earn God’s unmerited favour, God’s blessing, or God’s grace. But I’ve come a long way because I’ve come to understand that these things are presented backwards. Follow the rule, and you’ll be blessed. And it’s passages like this morning’s passage from Deuteronomy that have changed this for me.

This morning’s passage comes from the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy, which means “second law.” The book is a long series of sermons delivered by Moses, the leader of the Israelites, the Hebrew people, as they prepare to enter the land of Canaan. Also known as the “promised land.” Our passage itself comes after a long section of law. This is a whole new nation these people are setting up, so they need laws. They’ll need rules and regulations to govern the life of the community as they enter and settle the promised land together. And what’s a law code without a tax code? This part of the law is what the Israelites are obligated to share with the community for the common good:

“When you have come into the land,” begins our scripture passage. “When you have come in to 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.”

Take the first fruits of your crop (these people are all farmers). Take the first—the best—before you’ve taken your share. Moses says. First thing you do before you divvy up your crop, put it in a basket, and take it down to God’s dwelling place. At this point they don’t know it’s going to be a temple. But later on it’ll be the temple. The Holy place at the beating heart of the community. And give it to the priest.

Now, at first, this passage sounds just like the legalism I feared had brainwashed my Mormon girlfriend. I mean, after all, it is from a book called the second law. The second long list of required obligations for God’s people. Do this, or else God’s judgment will come upon you. But it’s more than that. It’s more than filling out your tax return and sending it to Canada Revenue on time. The people bring their first fruits to the priest at the temple, yes. But when they do so, they recite a response. One that reminds them of why they give in the first place:

“When the priest takes the basket from your hand,” it says. “When the priest receives your offering, 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 labour 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.’

When the people swing by the temple with their offering. When they bring their offering in, they recite the story about how they got to the promised land in the first place. Because forty years prior, Moses and his people were freed from slavery in Egypt. Following their exit from Egypt, they wandered the desert forty years. And now they stand on the edge of the desert. Over across the horizon is a green land, a land that’s perfect for agriculture. A land of milk and honey. This book, these sermons by Moses, are the last words, as they prepare to transition from the dry, scarcity of desert wandering , to the lush abundance of the settled life. These are the final words from slavery to freedom. And from poverty to plenty.

When they give, they recite the story about how they came in to the land. How they got there. Because for them, the act of giving at the temple, the act of generosity isn’t just a legal requirement, a rule, or a pattern to receive grace. They recite the story of where the fruit came from. Who brought them there. That it was God who delivered them from Egypt, and brought them in to the land. For them, the act of giving isn’t something that buys you grace. It’s a response to grace, a response to God’s liberation. It’s an act of remembrance. And an act of gratitude. Because this is something that’s so easy to forget.

And this is why we Christians so often have it backwards. Because we forget. But this text shows us what’s so revolutionary about Christianity, about Jesus and his Way. It’s that God comes to us first with grace, with liberation, with unconditional love and mercy that sets us free. Giving isn’t a holy obligation, it’s not a hardship. It’s not an act of enslavement. It’s a reminder of their liberation. And it’s an act of freedom in response. Generosity is a response to grace. And a mark of freedom.

It’s scripture passages like this, and the generosity of other people that have changed my mind. And it’s this thing that’s changed my own life, and my family’s life for the better. There’s no place in our lives that God doesn’t want to transform. And what we do with our money is one of those things. Every month, before everything else is tallied up, we set aside our first fruits. And these go to St. George’s, even though it’s St. George’s who pays us. (Well, actually, it’s automatic withdrawal, so we don’t have the choice). We don’t do it because it’s required of us—that’s a difference between Mormonism and orthodox Protestant Christianity: it’s a gift that is totally free will.

But we do it because the church provides the cornerstone. I mean, we give because we truly believe in this community of faith. The self-giving love that’s on display week after week, bearing one another’s burdens, reaching out to the least and lost through the soup kitchen. I’ve told friends that money given to St. George’s has as much, if not more of an impact per dollar as any good social service. But it’s more than that. It represents the most important thing in our lives: our identity as people who have been loved and liberated by the God we meet in Jesus Christ. I mean, we don’t do it because we’re extraordinary, generous people. In fact, it’s the opposite. Setting aside that money before anything else is a spiritual practice. A practice that reminds us, first that God is the source of all good things. We wouldn’t exist without God. We wouldn’t be who we are without God. And we wouldn’t have come to know the sense of deep joy, meaning and purpose we have, that’s changed everything for us. Without God. Without Jesus, we’d have nothing. And so it’s a way for us to love as God has loved us. As it’s been said, “grace comes to us on the way to somebody else.” So it’s a way for us to become more like God, to grow into the image of Jesus, by taking our part in a community that embodies the good news. A community that’s here to be Jesus to the world. Something so easy to forget.

Friends, brothers and sisters in Christ. I can’t tell you how much to give, or to give to the church at all. But I can tell you of what the practice of giving has done for me, has done for us as a family. It’s brought us joy to see our money well spent as part of this amazing community of faith. It’s reminded us of who we are, week after week after week. To trust that we have enough.  For us, giving isn’t a chain you’ve got to wrap around your neck. Some sort of painful obligation (though the first time pinched a bit for sure). But for us, it’s a response to grace. And act of gratitude. One that reminds us of who we are, and who we belong to. And a discipline, a practice through which God is shaping us into more generous, loving people. A way God is making us more like Jesus. One pay cheque at a time.

And for this, thanks be to God. AMEN.