First Fruits or No Fruits

by

Parrish W. Jones

©Copyright 2011 All rights reserved.


Deuteronomy 26:1-15


It is not possible to reiterate the horror that is unfolding on the U.S. and Mexico border. So I'll not try. Of course, a sermon is supposed to do more than describe events, because it is a time to think biblically and theologically about the world and how the disciple community can respond.

An outline will help: The $16 billion spent on Border enforcement originally had two purposes: to stop undocumented persons from crossing the border and to interdict drugs. Since 9-11, this agenda has been expanded to include anti-terrorism. The results are dubious. Every year more undocumented persons cross successfully and enter the U.S. Every year more persons die or are seriously injured trying to cross the border. So far no terrorist has tried to cross the U.S./Mexico border. As far as anyone knows, all the terrorists have come to the U.S. legally or crossed the U.S./Canadian border.

As lamentable and unsuccessful as it is, border policy reflects a deeper problem in the culture we live in. It reflects a dark shadow in our soul, a shadow we call xenophobia—fear of the stranger. This is a deep shadow with significant spiritual consequences because the Bible speaks a number of times about xenophilia. The Greek word that is translated “hospitality” is the word “xenophilia”, i.e., a lover of the foreigner. (Hebrews 13:2, Romans 12:13)

I could use as my central text any number of texts from the Newer Testament  where Jesus ministered to strangers, foreigners, persons excluded by law—like the Good Samaritan, the healing of the centurion’s daughter, the healing of the daughter of the woman who begged at Jesus’ feet for the crumbs meant for dogs, or the healing of the Gerasene demoniac, the Samaritan woman at the well, or the Samaritan leper whom Jesus healed, and so on. I could use the dream of Peter that led him to believe that Gentiles could be saved without becoming Jews, the conference in Jerusalem that institutionalized the principle of Peter’s dream, and, of course, many of Paul’s writings, not to mention the several passages in the Newer Testament that have "xenophilia" or its synonyms in them.

Instead, I am going to do what Brueggemann suggests that the Israelites did during a time when their community was suffering exclusion and disenfranchisement much as we in the church find ourselves suffering these days. I am going to turn to Deuteronomy, a book I think we have ignored in the church at our peril. With Leviticus, Deuteronomy reflects the attempt of the Hebrew community to think through what it means to be an alternative community in a world dominated by oppressive regimes. 

Deuteronomy 26 is written as if the people are still wandering in the wilderness, yet to arrive in the Promised Land. First, let me set the stage. Imagine you and I along with all of Israel are camped out in the wilderness on the side of a mountain overlooking the valley that stretches miles in all directions. We see nothing more than a flicker of a camp fire here and there in the distance. Perhaps, there is another camp in the distance of other people who are nomads like us. We can hear the crackle of our fires, perhaps the rush of a creek, the call of a bird, the voices of wild animals, and, of course, the sounds of our sheep and goats, oxen and donkeys, and children. For all we know someone’s cries are heard as she gives birth to a child, one that all pray will survive the night and the uncertain first few days.

Then a voice rises from among us over all the other noise.

    1. 1 When you have entered the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, 2 take some of the firstfruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land the LORD your God is giving you and put them in a basket. Then go to the place the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name 3 and say to the priest in office at the time, “I declare today to the LORD your God that I have come to the land the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us.” 4 The priest shall take the basket from your hands and set it down in front of the altar of the LORD your God. 5 Then you shall declare before the LORD your God: “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. 6 But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, subjecting us to harsh labor. 7 Then we cried out to the LORD, the God of our ancestors, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. 8 So the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders. 9 He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; 10 and now I bring the first fruits of the soil that you, LORD, have given me.” Place the basket before the LORD your God and bow down before him. 11 Then you and the Levites and the foreigners residing among you shall rejoice in all the good things the LORD your God has given to you and your household.

    2.  12 When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied. 13 Then say to the LORD your God: “I have removed from my house the sacred portion and have given it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, according to all you commanded. I have not turned aside from your commands nor have I forgotten any of them. 14 I have not eaten any of the sacred portion while I was in mourning, nor have I removed any of it while I was unclean, nor have I offered any of it to the dead. I have obeyed the LORD my God; I have done everything you commanded me. 15 Look down from heaven, your holy dwelling place, and bless your people Israel and the land you have given us as you promised on oath to our ancestors, a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Deuteronomy 26:1-15, 

  1. NIV 2011)

The centers of this text are the two responses before the Lord. The one when the priest takes our first fruits and the second after giving the tithe of all the produce in the third year. Remember! We are living on Manna. We don’t have to work for it. We just go out and pick it up off the ground. We get our fill and our children get theirs. Since the beginning of manna, we’ve seen no hunger and most of us remain in good health. All this and we lift hardly a finger. Ain’t God good! When we get to the Promised Land, we’re going to have to work hard for our food.  Then we’re supposed to give it away. Wait a minute, God! What’s this about?

The text gives us the reason we are to give away our food. It also gives us the old memory with which we are to focus our new vision. “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor.” This memory encapsulates the reason for being an alternative community in which there are no aliens or strangers in the long run because they are all given hospitality and place in the alternative community.

There is tension in the Older Testament on this issue. Xenophobia seemed to grow in Israel as it shored itself up for survival against aggression. However, the Newer Testament makes it clear xenophila is the correct focus.

Even this text says that we are to sit down with the Levites and the foreigners and celebrate. In the pericope about the tithe in the third year, we are instructed to give it to the Levites, the foreigners and the widows and orphans. Isn’t it interesting that the foreigners are grouped with the two most endangered and marginal groups in every culture: orphans and widows. 

The text tells us that making these offerings and speaking these words are the making of the covenant, a sign and seal that we will be a holy people who are honored and praised among the nations.

The French honored the United States with the Statue of Liberty for the distinctive trait of the U.S. of welcoming all who came to the shores. The French seemed to be unaware of the fact that the engine of progress for the new colonies and this nascent nation was Europeans willing to come and work and settle the vast frontier with the hope of receiving milk and honey. And so they and we have. Yet, we know our history towards immigrants from wherever they come has been that of xenophobia. In fact, as the statue was being constructed in France, the U.S. Was passing a law referred to as the "Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882".

When I first started meeting persons from Europe and Latin America, I was surprised that even they referred to us as a Christian nation. I wondered how we were more Christian than they with their state churches and older Christian traditions. One told me, “We are Christian by law, you are Christian by choice.”

Certainly, in many times and places the U.S. was honored and praised for its generosity and spirit of hospitality despite our failures. Sadly, today much that is happening has tarnished and marred that image around the world. Sadly, all that is honored and praised about us now are our ideals not our reality.

So what are we to do?

We live and work in a neighborhood that is crowded with foreign people— foreigners in that they are not European or even African by descent. Instead, they have come here from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and, of course, Asia, India, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and New Africa.

If I read the scriptures correctly, and this central text in particular, I think our response has to be to create a hospitable environment for all foreigners because the text tells us to welcome the foreigner to the feast. The U.S. and Canada have experienced, despite the slowdown caused by 9-11 and the 2008 debacle, a veritable feast for as long as many can remember. Despite times that were not so good, I have lived a life of abundance my whole life.

I do not know what it is like to have your children suffering from something that will cripple, blind, or otherwise handicap them and not be able to get medical help. I do not know what it would be like to have my child dying and be unable to do anything but watch. I do not know what it would be like to know that ten miles away there is a treatment for malaria, but because of politics and warring parties, I cannot get there to get it and the village children are dying.

I do not know what it would be like to be forced into armed battle because, if I did not go, my wife or daughters may be raped or killed or both. I do not know what it would be like to send my family away to a place I hope is safe with the hope they may survive and be safe, while I stay behind knowing that I will probably never see them again. I do not know what it is like to leave my mother and father, brother and sister, wife and children and travel to a strange land to live in a homeless shelter or on the street and work at menial jobs at low wages so I may send home money that may improve their lives.

I do not know what it is like to travel 2000 miles from home with no way of communicating with my family. Nor to contact a strange man whom others say can help me cross a border with a high wall along most of it, guarded by men with all manner of technology and guns and lights. Nor do I know what it is like to be taken out in the middle of the desert, put out at what someone says is the border to walk for 4 days and 70 miles through scorching dessert heat or freezing cold, chance of snake bite, attack from wild animals, the Border Patrol or vigilantes.

I do not know what it is like to live on the crumbs meant for the dogs under the tables of people who look to me to be very rich. I only know what it is like to sit at the table from which the crumbs fall. 

We will be participating in the central text of our faith in a few minutes. Our text says that Jesus welcomed everyone to this table. The crumbs that fall from this table are not meant for human or beast but are to be recycled for future feasts. At this table, all are welcomed and called into the presence of God. This is so because this table is hosted by the wandering Aramean, the ancestor of my faith. His name is Jesus and he calls us to follow him into the wilderness and to live on manna from God. He calls us to promise and hope not to safety and security. So we are called to this table as ancient Israel was called to deliver their first fruits and tithes to the Priest. We are called here to divest ourselves certainly of our security blankets but also of fears and uncertainty and insecurity and despair and hate and disdain and the other fruits of sin so we may bring forth in our lives the liberating fruit of the spirit. 

At this table we partake of the first fruits of God who is our Savior and look forward in hope to sharing in the fruits of the last days in the kingdom of heaven. All shall be filled. Sadly, our government and many who participate in this central text of the church, that we call communion, reject the foreigners and deny them the fruit. So as we come to this table it is with the hope, commitment, and energy to assure the foreigner his or her place. We can do that when we understand to the depths of our soul that partaking in this feast of the Lord makes us most alien and strange to this present age.

 

 

 

© Parrish Jones 2011          parrish@parrishjones.net