1 Once you have entered the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, and you take possession of it and are settled there, 2 take some of the early produce of the fertile ground that you have harvested from the land the LORD your God is giving you, and put it in a basket. Then go to the location the LORD your God selects for his name to reside. 3 Go to the priest who is in office at that time and say to him: “I am declaring right now before the LORD my God that I have indeed arrived in the land the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us.”
4 The priest will then take the basket from you and place it before the LORD your God’s altar. 5 Then you should solemnly state before the LORD your God:
“My father was a starving Aramean. He went down to Egypt, living as an immigrant there with few family members, but that is where he became a great nation, mighty and numerous. 6 The Egyptians treated us terribly, oppressing us and forcing hard labor on us. 7 So we cried out for help to the LORD, our ancestors’ God. The LORD heard our call. God saw our misery, our trouble, and our oppression. 8 The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, with awesome power, and with signs and wonders. 9 He brought us to this place and gave us this land—a land full of milk and honey. 10 So now I am bringing the early produce of the fertile ground that you, LORD, have given me.”
Set the produce before the LORD your God, bowing down before the LORD your God. 11 Then celebrate all the good things the LORD your God has done for you and your family—each one of you along with the Levites and the immigrants who are among you. (CEB)
This text brings several important questions to mind for me. Why do we worship? How does memory shape us as a people? Why do we give? To whom do we belong? These are, at their heart, deeply theological questions. One of the first things Dr. Teresa Berger, the professor of my Introduction to Christian Theology class, taught her students was that we are all theologians. Theologians are not limited to pastors, seminary professors, and seminary students. Every Christian is a theologian because thinking about God is theology.
It’s Sunday and we’re in church, so I’m guessing most of us have thought about God today. At least, I hope we have. By my professor’s definition, you are a theologian.
Deuteronomy 26 begins with an act of giving that is really an act of thanksgiving. This is a liturgy—an act or work of the people—that they should continue to do (c.f. Deuteronomy 26:16-19). The people of Israel were given this liturgy so they could remember their story. For the Jewish people, memory often proved itself the mother of faith for the way in which God’s promises were, not merely retold, but rehearsed and relived. The word re-member means to put something back together, as opposed to dis-member which is to tear something apart. This liturgy made the people remember who they are, where they came from, and whose they are.
If you look at the liturgies of the Old Testament, they almost always give instructions for what the people are to do and recount why they are to do those actions. There is purpose behind acts of worship. And there is purpose behind our acts of worship. It’s the memory that frames that purpose in our hearts and minds. “Deuteronomy knows that when a people forget their past, they lose their present and future” (Archie Smith, Jr., Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2, pg.28). If we forget that God has saved us, how can we live as salvation people?
Worship helps us re-member to whom we belong. God is always the one who acts first on our behalf. God delivered the people from bondage in Egypt to liberty in the Promised Land. God delivered us from bondage to sin and death to freedom from sin and a new life that is eternal in God’s presence.
How closely do we pay attention when we work through the liturgy of the Great Thanksgiving? We declare that we are all made in God’s image, that our very life comes from the breath of God. If we’ve ever wondered who we are or whose we are, our liturgy of worship declares that we belong to God, that we were made by God so that we could be loved by God. Even when our love for God and each other failed, God’s love for us remained steadfast and unwavering.
Deuteronomy also makes clear that Israel was the victim of suffering and oppression in Egypt, and God delivered them. God chose them. God moved them from a land of oppression to a land flowing with milk and honey. Are we not victims of the oppression of the evil one, sin, and ultimately death? Yet, God has come to us, claimed us, and made a way for us where there was not a way. In Jesus Christ, we have become God’s own possession and people, and we are heirs to all the promises of God alongside Israel. In Christ, we are healed of the oppression of sin, and death, itself, has been defeated by resurrection.
Then, there’s the question about giving to God. In this liturgy from Deuteronomy, the act of giving culminates in celebration with Levites and immigrants—the priests and the aliens, the insiders and outsiders. In some parts of the world, the church erupts in celebration when the pastor invites people to give for the offering. Wouldn’t that be amazing to see here? That kind of celebration can only happen when the people who give remember that everything they have is a gift from God. That kind of remembering makes people want to give; excited to give. People who understand that they are the recipients of abundance can’t wait to acknowledge that gift by returning the first fruits to the one who first provided the gift to them.
In Deuteronomy, the word most often used regarding the land is “possess.” The people possessed the land, but it is abundantly clear that the land still belonged to God. The people do not own anything. They merely possess. In a sense, they are eternally beggars who reside in a land that is not their own, who rely utterly on the unfathomable generosity of God-the-landowner. I think that’s why God tells the people to celebrate with the Levites and the immigrants because such a celebration reflects the people’s own situation as immigrants residing in God’s land, living off the bounty only God can provide.
Due, in part, to American culture, our giving has become a private, inward moment instead of the communal, outward celebration described in Deuteronomy (and found in other Christian congregations of the world). How would our own sense of what we possess and how we give be altered by the memory that we are resident aliens, that what we have is God’s, and we’re living every day on God’s gift of abundance? What kind of remembrance might it take to get us celebrating an invitation to give our first fruits and tithes to God?
I think it would take a radical shift in priorities and how we organize those priorities. Because, it’s easy to forget our identity as God’s people. The world is full of distractions that draw our attention elsewhere. In one sense, we can get comfortable with our wealth, but in another sense we can get so tied up in worrying about our wealth and the fear of scarcity—that we might not have enough—that we’re pulled away by one of the many worries of the world. That’s why Jesus told us, “Instead, desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33 CEB).
When we forget—even for a moment—that all we have is from God, that we are beloved of God; when we forget whose we are; when we forget our deliverance from the bondage of sin and death; then our acts of worship, thanksgiving, and praise, themselves, can become meaningless. And we might question why we’re even bothering to show up in this place on Sunday mornings.
For example, in Deuteronomy, the giving of the first fruits of the harvest and the reciting of the story of deliverance are inseparably linked. The meaning of the people’s giving of the first fruits is found in recounting of the story of God’s liberating act for the people. Without the story of liberation—without the remembering—the act of giving would hold no meaning for the people making the offering. If we forget the story—our story—then our worship won’t make sense. It’ll feel empty.
So, how do we organize our lives, our sense of worth, our sense of self, our sense of history, and our sense of priority? How do we remember who and whose we are?
One way we can begin is by remembering our own story.
Do we remember our own story? And by that, I don’t mean our personal history—though that certainly plays a part. What I mean is, do we remember that we are a people who were utterly lost and broken (and by “we” I mean all people, not just us in particular), we were created in the very image of God yet turned away from that glory in rebellion so we could chase after our own devices and desires, we were born to live in sin and to die because of it. But God intervened in our human mess by sending the Eternal Word to be born among us, to live, to teach, to suffer, and to die on a cross for us so that we might have life and have it more abundantly.
Do we remember our story? Do we remember where we’ve been as a human race and, by God’s grace, where we’re being led?
It’s important to remember. There is joy in remembering because—no matter what hot mess is going in in our lives right now—the memory reminds us how deeply we’re loved and how deeply present God is with us right now.
Why do we worship? Because more than any other thing we do, worship forms us as a people who live according to and unto God’s rule and reign of love and peace for all creation. Worship helps us to re-member whose we are, why we give, and how we’re called to live as people of the promise.
We must remember God’s work of creation, because we were created. We must remember God’s work of redemption and salvation because we have been redeemed and saved by a God who loved us before we were formed in our mother’s womb. We must remember, because Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again.
With such a remembrance of who we are, whose we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re being led, what can our response be but celebration? How can we not rejoice with priests and immigrants, insiders and outsiders, friends and enemies?
In a way, the journey of Lent prepares us and helps us to remember according to this same pattern. The psalmist reminds us that “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5 NRSV). Suffering comes before deliverance and salvation. This journey to the cross must be undertaken before we celebrate the joy of Easter. We must remember what God has done for us, how God has suffered for us, because it’s part of our story. The great invitation of Lent is to remember again the depth of God’s love, and the profundity of God’s overflowing grace. We were once outsiders. But now we are God’s people only because God has opened the way for us.
Do we remember our story?
How shall we respond?
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
Rev. Christopher Millay