“First Things First”

February 14th 2016

Rev. Caroline Lawson Dean

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A long time ago in a land faraway, God delivered the people of Israel from their bondage in Egypt.  In the book of Exodus we hear the epic stories of the 10 plagues and the parting of the Red Sea.  Then Moses then guides the people through their wilderness wanderings.  And today we fast forward into the book of Deuteronomy.  After wandering in the desert for 40 years, Moses pauses on the plains of Moab.  Moses, the revolutionary leader, will die before entering into the land that he has worked so hard to reach – and so Moses passes along his wishes for his people in the codes of law written in the book of Deuteronomy.  Here begins our reading of a portion of Moses’ rule of life:

A Reading from Deuteronomy Chapter 26 verses 1-11:

Reader 1:  “When you have come into the land 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 or all of 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 God’s name.  You shall go to the priest and say to him,

Reader 2:  “Today I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give to us.”

Reader 1:  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 your God:

Reader 2:  “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; and 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, with signs and wonders; and God 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.”

Reader 1:  You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before God.  Then you, together with the Levites, who are the priests, 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.  And every third year, the year of the tithe, give a tenth of your produce to the Levite, the foreigner, the orphan, and the widow so that they may eat their fill in your cities.”

Let us pray: “God of Love, may the words of our mouths and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, our Rock and our Redeemer.  And may the wisdom and inspiration that you have for each us sink deep into our hearts we pray, Amen.

In Moses’ final days he becomes reflective.  He remembers the epic adventures that he has shared with his people.  And Moses, like any modern elder, leader or parent, hopes that his legacy will make an impact on the next generation.  And even though Moses has great hope, he cannot help but fear that like time and time before on their adventures together in the wilderness, the people of Israel will get a bit too comfortable.  And in their new settled life they will easily get apathetic and even lose their way.  They may need some strategies to reorient themselves and find their way back to God.

I love imagining Moses in this reflective space, he is like any parent, hopeful, exhausted and still worrying about his beloved community’s sustainability even after conquering such amazing feats.  He cannot go into the Promised Land, and he must trust the next generation of leaders, and ultimately God, with the care of his people.  But before he goes, I imagine him scrambling to capture it.  To capture the way of life that he imagines for their next chapter.  The codes and structures that will keep them connected with each other, with their ancestors and with God.  And Moses is very thorough!  He covers everything from food, festivals, murder, inheritance and so on…  A much more thorough rule of law than the 10 commandments provide.  And so in our reading today we find one nugget of Moses’ wisdom: the tradition of the “first fruits.”

Now, the problem with Moses’ legacy is that it is quickly translated into rules and laws.  And we happen live in a current moment that prides itself on critiquing the religious institutions of our day (which quite frankly need a lot of constructive feedback!).  For many of us any discussion of “religious laws” – do’s or don’t – rights or wrongs – leaves a bad taste in our mouths.  We are sick of religious practices that quickly induce shame or guilt.  We do not seek out religious communities that are quick to regulate our behavior.  These religious laws that are supposed to reunite us with God can end up feeling oppressive.  In the end we feel guilt ridden and defeated instead of enlightened or delivered from our brokenness.  Even Jesus was critical of the way that these laws had been calcified over the years by the religious elite and used to oppress people instead of bringing them into true relationship with God.

My own personal struggle with moral codes is on the tip of my spiritual imagination this Lent because I am admittedly terrible at Lenten practices.  Maybe it’s to do with my low church, Baptist roots – we didn’t pay much attention to Lent in my spiritual upbringing.  But I think that the main reason that I struggle to keep a Lenten practice is my perfectionism.

Does this happen to you when you make a resolution?  This Lent I am trying to meditate 5-10 minutes during work days and I have gotten off to a strong start.  However, a week or two into my practice, it will slip my mind, or I will intentionally say “I have got to take a break today.”  And then that day slips into 3 or 4 days.  And here is the critical moment.  When I am reminded of my practice, I feel so bad about missing those days that I cannot gear up to try again.  And yes, most of this processing is subconscious, but it’s almost like failing to adhere to the “rule of law” that I have set for myself makes me feel so guilty that in order to avoid my guilt, I actually end up avoiding the practice itself!

And so the question for me this Lent has been, how do we approach these practices so that they are life giving and not guilt inducing?  How do we structure our lives with ritual and spiritual practices without these life-giving practices becoming empty and routine?

Brother David Vryhof from the Society of Saint John the Baptist in the Episcopal Church of Canada has a helpful metaphor for thinking about a monastic rule of life.  (VIDEO “Growing a Rule of Life” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jNQ7f6CXLsM)

“A rule is a way of regularizing our life, of bringing order and intentional approaches to the way that we are living” – rather than living a life that is reactionary it is intentional.  Our undirected spiritual lives can be like a clump of vine growing in a chaotic pattern.  During Lent we have an opportunity to direct our spiritual instincts and give them support and then over time these practices become infused in our life.

So let’s take this practice that Moses offers of up as an example, giving back our “first fruits” to God and to people who are in need.  Let’s start at the beginning, the people of Israel leave behind all that they know as familiar and everything that makes them feel secure in the land of Egypt.  They leave behind their rule of life, which was slavery.  And this code of law was oppressive yes, but it was also familiar and even at times comfortable.  But the question is now what?  They wander in the desert for 40 years, trying to get Egypt out of their system, but if slavery will not be their orienting rule of law then what will take its place?

The writings and legacy of Moses attempt to give the people structure, a so-called trellis, to give them support and direction to rebuild their lives around their relationship with God as the primary orienting structure in their lives.  And so when they finally reach the border of the Promised Land, Moses intuits that on the other side of this wandering adventure lies a season of rootedness.  And in that rootedness Moses fears complacency, and at worst a season of entitlement.  And Moses’ biggest fear is that in their complacency they would lose their connection with God.

And so among his many brainstorms, to keep the people of Israel on track, is this harvest ritual.  The people would bring their first crops during the harvest season as an offering to God and the Levites.  And during that ritual they would retell their sacred story of how God brought them out of slavery in Egypt and delivered them into this Promised Land.  At the close of this ritual the people of Israel would gather to celebrate with the alien and with the priests who are both unable to own land, and are therefore more vulnerable.  And lastly, every third year the people are also instructed to give a tenth of their crop to the widow, the foreigner and the orphans who also do not have access to the wealth of land.

And so what Lenten practices could we imagine adopting if we are inspired by Moses’ wisdom?  And how can we approach these practices so that we aren’t paralyzed by guilt or perfectionism?  How can they be like a trellis, holding us up, giving form and structure to our spiritual life?

The first practice that Moses wants to instill in his people for generations to come is gratitude.  Moses tells the story of God’s deliverance.  God has freed the people from bondage.  And perhaps even more powerful, God’s presence sustained them in their wilderness wanderings.  It’s as if Moses is saying, “Remember what God has done to free you from your time of trial, to guide you in your wandering days, when we lived as aliens with no home.  Remember the stories and gifts given by your God and your ancestors.”

And isn’t this something that we can practice this Lent?  It is so tempting when we put our nose to the grindstone in our everyday work life to lose perspective and forget a very important truth.  The many blessings and gifts in our lives do not only from our hard work alone!  We are given so many gifts and graces in each day, which we do not earn.  God has blessed us each with mentors, resources and kindnesses that have lifted us up & guided us in times of trial.  It can be hard to fight spiritual apathy that comes with seasons of monotony or entitlement but one key practice in doing so is gratitude.

And so this Lent how can you infuse your every day with gratitude?  Perhaps it is a simple practice of saying grace at meals with family and friends.  Perhaps it is a gratitude journal or prayer practice.  Perhaps you can close your day with a simple examen with your partner or your children, or even a private practice reflecting on the things that you are most grateful for from this day.

The second simple practice that Moses’ is offering us as a vessel to help us grow spiritually is a practice of generosity.  Can you imagine what kind of beautiful world we would live in if we gave away the best of everything that we did in the harvest of our life?  If we gave our “first fruits” financially, vocationally, materially, relationally, to those who are in need?  And don’t get me wrong, this isn’t easy.  When we pour ourselves into work that we love, when we reap and sow with our own blood, sweat and tears it is so easy to feel ownership of our work.  And we live in a society that whispers to us this lie, “there will not be enough!”  We live in a society that whispers, “keep what is rightfully yours to protect your own!”  And of course there is some wisdom in caring for the ones you love, but haven’t we taken that mantra of “not enough” out of perspective?  And who are the ones that we are tasked with caring for, only our bloodline or our beloved friends, what about those who are vulnerable?  What about those who have no one to care for them?  These whispers of “not enough” make us fear the stranger, they make us cling to our wealth, our productivity – and in the end these things promise a false security, a false happiness.  In the end these gods will not save us.

When Moses asks us to give first, why is this so important?  Can’t we secure our own future and then practice generosity?  Can’t we provide for our immediate family and our own needs and then help others?  And of course, we can.  But, we cannot put off practices like gratitude and generosity until tomorrow, or until retirement, like our physical or emotional health, our spiritual health depends on practices that build over time.

Of course it is never too late to start, but why does God ask us to give first?  Because when we give first, we also practice letting go.  We are often given the gift of freedom when we let go.  Our egos are less clingy, our self-worth is a little less bound up in our productiveness, our perspective, our priorities are a bit more clear.  When we give first, we remind ourselves that we are dependent upon God alone.

So what will your practice of generosity be this Lent?  Perhaps it is a tight season for you financially, and if so, how can you give of your time, your passion, your vision?  Perhaps you can give back to the organizations or communities that have formed you as a dual practice of generosity and gratitude?  What would it look like for you to give of your “first fruits” to God and to the widow, the orphan and the alien?  What would it look like for you to practice generosity here at Christ Church, in our spiritual home?

And lastly, when we create these practices of gratitude and generosity we cannot do so with a sense of perfectionism or a sense that we are earning our worth in God’s eyes.  This is what trips me up in Lent.  I am still learning how to wrap my spiritual practice in grace.  Repeating to myself over and over again that it is not about being perfect, it is about returning again and again to God.  Just like the Israelites, God’s grace covers my wanderings.  And God’s love is always there when I return.  God will not greet me with guilt or shame but always, like the prodigal daughter, with unconditional grace.

I always think of my grandfather, “Papa Jack” at this time of year.  He was a beloved surgeon in the town, known for his excellent bedside manner.  He died on February 4th in 1995.  The Christmas season before Papa Jack passed away our entire family gathered around his bedside for Christmas Eve.  All of his children, and all of his grandchildren we able to be present.  He had lung cancer and so his breathing was irregular and yet right before we left he offered to pray over us.  We circled around his bed holding hands and we received a blessing, each of his children and each of his grandchildren.  I do not remember the words by heart, but I have a strong memory of the legacy that my grandfather has left for me.  He left us a sense of our own belovedness.  He showed us the beauty of a life marked by a deep calling.  He modeled how to be fully present with the ones that you are called to help.  He provided for his family but this was not just a financial gift, it was a spiritual legacy.  And when you receive a spiritual inheritance, it as if you get a blueprint for the trellis that you might build for your own life.  You don’t have to start from scratch.   And that blueprint is such a gift.

And so this Lent, what will your legacy be, for your family, friends and loved ones?  How can you infuse your life with gratitude and generosity so that the arc of your life bends towards unconditional love?  And through it all how can we cover ourselves with God’s grace, knowing that God’s love is like Rumi’s poem.  It whispers to us, “Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving. It doesn’t matter…Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times. Come, yet again, come.” Amen.