Sermon: First Things First

25 February 2007

The Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)
February 25, 2007

The First Sunday of Lent

First Things First

Deuteronomy 26:1-11

Prayer: May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

The tradition of giving "first fruits" to God arises from the ancient heritage of many an agricultural people - from Greek and Roman pagans to Jews to medieval Catholics. And yet, today's scripture lesson is one of those that comes from so far in the distant past that it may be hard to grasp, to understand what in the world it could have to do with us, or our lives today. Placing the first fruits of the ground into a basket, laying it before the priest, declaring "a wandering Aramean was my ancestor…" It all sounds pretty foreign. How can we relate to the people of Deuteronomy, newly delivered from generations of slavery in Egypt, and 40 years of wandering in the desert in search of the Promised Land? We are having a hard enough time, in this anniversary year, remembering what it was like here in Brookfield just 250 years ago, when our church began. And yet, our call as people of faith now, as back then, is to spread the Good News of God's deliverance - as we remember those who, from a wilderness of suffering, called out for help and were saved. Our biggest problem today is not scarcity, but overabundance, which has led to many diseases of both body and spirit. One thing our early Congregationalist ancestors knew, like the Hebrew slaves of the Exodus: the most precious "first fruits" of real deprivation is the gift of heartfelt thanksgiving.

Deprivation teaches true gratitude. It teaches us to put "first things first." Because my daughter Lela had appendicitis surgery last week, she was not allowed any food or drink for nearly 72 hours. She doesn't even like apple juice, but that was what she was given to drink to break her 3-day fast. Yet to see her face and hear her sigh with delight, it was as if she'd tasted the nectar of the gods. She was given the gift of gratitude, and out of that gratitude came a real "first fruits" offering, not out of necessity, but out of genuine joy and generosity. While she was laid up and complaining about hunger, we kept seeing some diet company ads for 50 days of free food, where platters of delicious meals went streaming past in tantalizing succession. But she was most moved by the plight of starving pets on TV ads for the ASPCA. So when I asked what she wanted for her birthday, she wanted me to give the money to the ASPCA, to help feed those neglected shelter animals.
A bout with deprivation also helps us to understand now fragile and precious our lives are. When we receive the ashes of repentance to begin Lent, the traditional words of remembrance are "Ashes to ashes; dust to dust. Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return." It may sound awfully medieval, or morbidly depressing, but reminders of our mortality can truly be a gift that helps us see our lives in a new way. We learn what is of ultimate importance, how much of our lives is truly trivial. We have very little idea how much we need God to help us until we're faced with true adversity.

I read recently a classic nonfiction children's book by Donn Fendler, called "Lost on a Mountain in Maine." It recounts the true story of how (in 1939, when he was only 12) he got separated from his family in a fog bank on top of Mount Katahdin. For 9 days and 8 nights, he struggled, all alone, with no food or shelter, map or compass, to find his way down the mountain. What inspired me was how he said his prayers each morning and night, and at each meal, just as he had been trained by his parents at home. At first it sounded like it was more habit than real devotion. But with no food except what berries he could find, he began to pour out very lengthy and hearty thanks whenever he was able to eat. Those prayers became more and more important to him, until he said it seemed he was praying just about every minute, and for just about every single thing. When, toward the end, he had lost not just his way, but his shoes, his pants and even some of his toes, all rational hope of survival was ebbing away. He described a time he fell down on his face and couldn't get up. All he could do was pray. He said he was sure his guardian angel must have intervened when he felt strong hands literally lift him up from behind and set him on his feet again, with energy to go on. Similarly, when he came to a fork in the road, he stopped to pray, and believed God led him choose the way to a campsite where strangers were able to get him home safely again.

No one would choose an agonizing path like the one Lela or Donn Fendler walked, any more than anyone would choose the way the Israelites walked - out of slavery, across the dry sand between the parted Red Sea, or across the wilderness of the Sinai. But we are invited, during this season of Lent, into a time of modified desert wandering, where fasting and prayer are options we can choose to draw nearer to the God of our ancestors. We are invited to do so, not because suffering is something innately good, but because a time of deprivation can yield spiritual gifts in such abundance. Like Jesus, who willingly chose the path of temptation in the desert in order to prepare himself for his ministry, we too might choose some small deprivation to draw nearer to God.

Even if you haven't almost died in the wilderness, if you've done any camping at all, you know how great it feels to take a hot shower or sleep in a bed after a few nights outside. Deprivation always helps us appreciate things we might otherwise take for granted. Not only that, some sort of "fast" during Lent can make room for other things we should be putting first, like devotion to God. We learn what we can do without.

One Lent, when I gave up coffee, I discovered how irritable and exhausted I really was - as a result, I cut back on work hours, got more sleep, and figured out how much money I was spending each week on gourmet coffee and gave that money away instead. One year my family gave up cable TV, although in all fairness I have to admit we did get pretty decent aerial reception. Still, we didn't re-install it after Lent was over - because we were happy to get back some of that valuable time we'd wasted switching channels, and so we could increase our pledge by the amount of money we were saving each month. The year we gave up sweets was when somebody else in my husband's family had just been diagnosed with diabetes. We lost a good amount of weight, and had fewer colds and cleaner teeth - and again, without the extra desserts, we had more money to give away. That year we made a big donation to our children's Heifer Project offering, so that Third World kids who couldn't even in their wildest dreams imagine taking their bike over to the 7-11 to buy a pack of M&Ms, could have a little goat's milk to drink.

Sometimes when we do without something, we realize how we had actually been in bondage to that thing. Once I'd done without coffee, or cable TV, or sugar for a while, I no longer missed them - but before that, they were things I thought I couldn't live without. And that, really, is the definition of an addiction. I know of others who have given up things like smoking or drinking or shopping during Lent, with much prayer and help from God, and have changed their lives in obviously healthy ways. I encourage you to think about what you might be able to do without. When we remove the excess clutter from our lives, we are truly set free, and our resources are freed to do God's work.

I want to close with a story about my father's parents, who never had enough clutter or wealth to fear losing it. They were born in the late 19th century, in poor coal mining towns in the Appalachian Mountains, near the Cumberland Gap. And yet somehow they not only managed to raise two children during the Great Depression, they got them both through college. Although they never earned enough to pay income tax, they always made a generous pledge to their church, and sent all the grandchildren money and homemade goodies on each birthday. I laughed out loud yesterday remembering my grandfather's approach to stewardship as I picked up my latest New Yorker magazine and opened it to a color ad for Rolex watches.

A beautiful woman was wearing the watch - along with a very impractical, flowing, green dress, and even more impractical (as she was balanced on a log across a ravine) high-heeled sandals. She was in a lush jungle, with a roaring waterfall behind her. The headline said "Fearless Luxury." I laughed, because it brought back a memory of snuggling in my Grandfather's lap and reading the New Yorker with him when I was a child. One time, when I was admiring a picture of a glamorous woman in diamond bracelets and mink furs, my grandfather just sighed and shook his head. When I asked why, he said (and he meant this with all sincerity) he said he always had felt so sorry for people who thought they needed to buy those things in the New Yorker ads. They were wasting so much money on things that really were worthless, when their money could be used by God to do so many wonderful things - like buy enough food for a starving village in Africa, or Bibles for Christians in Russia, or shoes for poor children of coal miners. He knew from experience that paying for those things could give real joy, unlike the empty pleasures of mere consumption. So he always gave with fearless generosity.

As we begin this Lenten season, I challenge you to think about the theme we have chosen for this year, "Be not afraid." Because good stewardship is really about overcoming fear. Fear there won't be quite enough. Fear that it'll hurt to do without something. Fear that others won't give too, and it won't be fair, and one more little gift won't make a difference. But faith conquers all fear - faith in the promises of Almighty God, who parted the Red Sea and set the Israelites free. That God who provided manna in the wilderness won't let us go hungry if we put first things first and give with fearless generosity. Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

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