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A Holy People For God

Sermon - 2/21/10
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Deuteronomy 26:1-11, 16-19

This Sunday and next Sunday, as we enter into the season of Lent, in preparation for Holy Week, I wanted to look at two of the most important passages, interesting enough, from the Torah, the first five looks of Scripture, which go to the heart of Jewish identity and which are therefore also important to us. Not only to understand the Jewish roots of Christian faith but also to understand our own identity as a people also holy to God.   An understanding that I will argue is distorted when made exclusive, separating the world into the holy and the unholy.

So the text comes from Deuteronomy 26 in which the people are told that now that they are in this land that has been given to them, flowing with milk and honey, that they are to take fruits from the first harvests and bring them to God to be dedicated in thanksgiving. And I'm going to pick up at verse 4, where we read:

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, 2you 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. 3You 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.’ 4When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, 5you 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. 6When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, 7we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. 8The 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; 9and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10So 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. 11Then 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.

This very day the Lord your God is commanding you to observe these statutes and ordinances; so observe them diligently with all your heart and with all your soul. 17Today you have obtained the Lord’s agreement: to be your God; and for you to walk in his ways, to keep his statutes, his commandments, and his ordinances, and to obey him. 18Today the Lord has obtained your agreement: to be his treasured people, as he promised you, and to keep his commandments; 19for him to set you high above all nations that he has made, in praise and in fame and in honor; and for you to be a people holy to the Lord your God, as he promised.


This is the conclusion to what is known as the code of Deuteronomy, that begins in Chapter 12. Fourteen chapters of miscellaneous laws governing all aspects of personal and communal life. And tradition holds that the first five books of Scripture were written by Moses, and given to people prior to his departure which is narrated at the end of this book. But Jewish and Christian scholars alike are pretty much in wide agreement that this was written much later, after the establishment of the monarchy and the dividing of the kingdom into North and South. And many if not most scholars even date it further still, either during or after the Babylonian exile. In other words, about six centuries, if you know that history, before the time of Jesus when the Jewish nation faced an enormous political and religious crisis. And had to in essence rebuild their identity and faith even as they rebuilt their temple and their homes and their cities and their institutions.

And it is in this context of returning from the exile that this ritual of retelling that story, the story of origins, the story from where we came, the story of identity, you see, that becomes so important. A wandering Aramean was my father, or ancestor. Who went down to Egypt and became enslaved there, and then restored by God. You can almost hear the ancestors of faith saying to their children, you know, 'you think you've got it tough now', and of course referring way back. And remember that time that we as a people suffered, and God heard our cries.

It's a powerful and inspiring narrative that remains at the very core of the Jewish ethos even to this day. Next Sunday, we will look at the complex issue of the holy land itself and how the promise of the land has made the promise of peace so elusive. And hopefully how we can finally achieve that peace.

This morning I want to focus on what this story says to us, as a a people of God as well. I take from it three points, or lessons for us. First of all the proper relationship between law and grace. Too often we in the Christian tradition in particular have portrayed the Jewish tradition and the Hebrew Scriptures as being all about law, and the New Testament as being about grace. The proper theological term for that separation between law and grace and Old Testament and New Testament, is a term you may want to write down and become familiar with. It's called: "hogwash" :).  Very big theological term, you know. There's actually a stronger term, but I won't repeat it here in public.

There is so much misconception from years of bad Sunday school lessons, and misreading of Scripture, and bad teaching. I'd like to remove it all in one fell swoop if I could. So I want you to just imagine anything that you may have learned through the years, anything you've heard that kind of reinforces that notion that they're all about law and we're all about grace, that Judaism was all about living according to a legal code, etc. Take all of that and wrap it up in a ball and flush it down the toilet. Stick it in the garbage disposal. Put it in the trash, or better in the compost heap, make something good out of it.

So why do I insist that we rid ourselves of those old notions?

First of all, it's anti-Semitic. It uses a false characterization of Judaism to make it inferior to our faith, passing judgment on the Jews for being "legalistic". As if Christians have ever been legalistic! I mean, come on. And the second is that this idea that the Old Testament is all about law and the New Testament is all about grace is just plain wrong. I mean, read your Bible.

Someone asked Jesus 'which is the greatest law'? Jesus says 'to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself'. That's law. It's good law, but it's law. It's Jewish law. But it's law. A rich man asked what must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus said 'Go, sell all that you have, give it to the poor, come and follow me'. That's law, that's not grace. He was asked about divorce -- Jesus condemned it, that's law. Paul says women should keep their head covered, you see, that's law. James said faith without works is dead. Without works -- that's law. The whole notion of who's in and who's out, is all about law.

In reality, there's all kinds of law in the New Testament. But because we see law as something 'bad', we have blinders on, we simply don't see it. And there's plenty of grace in the Old Testament. The story of Joseph, remember, when his 11 brothers come to him in Egypt because of the famine, and forgives them for what they did to him (kicking him out of the family). You see, it's a story of grace.

The story of Jonah and Nineveh. Nineveh was to be condemned but is forgiven by God because of Jonah's preaching. That's grace. Jonah doesn't get it, he's angry, he wants to see them burn in hell. He doesn't understand grace.

The story of Hosea, and his love for Gomer, is a story just filled with grace. Ruth and Naomi, is grace. Jacob and Esau, reconciled after Jacob steals his brother's birthright, is a story of grace. The 23rd Psalm, 'The Lord is my Shepherd', grace. Isaiah 40, 'comfort, comfort, you my people', is grace. Hosea 11, God says my compassion will grow warm and tender within me, grace.

God's steadfast love and mercy, grace, is one of the most consistent themes of the Hebrew Scriptures. And in this text, it s the grace of God that saves the Hebrew slaves and leads them from the land of oppression to the land of milk and honey. Law, represented here by his command to bring the first fruits of the harvest to God, is the response to grace, not the other way around. We Jews and Christians alike keep God's commands not to earn God's favor, rather we keep God's commands in gratitude for God's favor.

And that leads to my second lesson, that the first fruits of the harvest are brought to show gratitude to God for the gifts of land and freedom. It's the same concept in Native American religions, and Avatar (the movie). That notion of hunting and taking a life, of giving thanks for the life of the animal, so that we might have life. It's the same idea. It's why we emphasize gratitude as the attitude of Christian stewardship. And too often stewardship is viewed as one choice among a multitude of options as people of faith. You know, of 7 characteristics of being a Christian, choose three. Well, let's see, going to church on Sunday, teaching Sunday school (that will earn me some brownie points), and hmmm, should I volunteer at the soup kitchen, or give a percentage of my income. I'll volunteer, there, now I'm a good Christian.

That's not the way it works. You see, sharing the produce of our labor is not an option for people of faith. We do it not because it is a command, an expectation of us, rather because it's a reflection of who we are and ultimately who God is. To put it differently: can water not be wet? Can fire not burn? As Jesus says, can salt lose it's saltiness? And the big question on our mind this morning: Can a football player for the University of Oregon not be arrested? :)

Giving, sharing of ourselves with others, is simply part of what it means to be a Christian. We give because Christ gives, we share because God shares. God brought the people out of the land of scarcity and into the land of bounty. And so now the thankful worshiper says 'I bring the first fruits of the ground that you O Lord have given me'.

Third and last point, and here is where there's a lot of misconception. To be a holy people, as this text announces, is not about being more important or privileged above others. And I know the text says God has put this people high above all nations. And you may have heard of the Pacifica Forum. I got involved in that whole issue a couple years ago because of the presenter that gave this awful presentation about Judaism is being a religion that is intent on taking over the world. And I felt, many of us felt, that that had to be challenged. And on it continues now, and many of us believe it's absolutely important that we speak up and speak out and not be silent on what's happening there.

But at any rate, here's how I understand these kinds of passages, when people distort the text as was done there. A a great example I use is from the book The Shack, I know many of you have read that book. In that book, Mac is spending the weekend with God, who is portrayed as this big black Mama. Always in the kitchen cooking and hugging him, very loving. Every time Mac mentions somebody, someone in the family, someone in history, a musician, a friend, God always says "Oh, I'm especially fond of him (or her)". And so Mac then says "you seem to be especially fond of a lot of people, are there any who you are not especially fond of?". She lifted her head and rolled her eyes as if she were mentally going through the catalog of every being ever created. "Nope, haven't been able to find any".

You see, God is like that parent who says I love you most of all. I love you most of all. I love you most of all (to three different kids). To each of us, God says that. To be a holy people is not to be set above all others, rather it is to be set for all others. It is to be a people who make God's grace and gift available for all to share. I know when we sing that that song "Holiness", sometimes we're uncomfortable with the concept. We think of that concept of holiness as being about people who think they are holier than we are, and have a negative notion of it. But this is what it means to be holy, to have that sense of grace, to have God's grace in our life, that is so overwhelming that we want to share it, that we have to share it.

And note in this text, then, that who shares in the bounty when the offering is brought? Who's there? The text says you are to share this bounty with the aliens who are residing with you in the land. The citizens, the foreigners are to share it alike. This is classical middle-Eastern hospitality, this notion that you share alike with all. Citizen and foreigner. And what is the reality today that we see in this country as well as, sadly, in the Middle East? Instead of that kind of equal sharing, it's this competition and exclusion and fear and hatred. Completely against what God's intent for each of us.

In the section that I skipped over in this passage, in the middle of the text, three groups are specifically listed as those with whom the first fruits are to be shared: aliens, orphans, and widows. Their well-being, three groups traditionally in ancient societies that were the worst off, is taken as an indication for the faithfulness, the holiness, of God's people. In short the holiness of any people is in direct proportion to the well-being of the weakest in their midst.

Jesse Jackson challenged folks at the University of Oregon campus in his visit this week, saying the disaster in Haiti was not the earthquake. There was an earthquake in the Bay Area (San Francisco), my wife was part of it (didn't cause it, was just there when it happened :). It was of equal magnitude of the one in Haiti. How many were killed? Less than 100. How many killed in Haiti? 200,000. The disaster was not the earthquake, the disaster is the poverty. Jesse challenged us to respond to that disaster.

As I read this text, the answer to whether we can claim to be a holy people depends directly on our response to that kind of disaster. If we think that we have been blessed by God in a way that Haiti is not, and that we are therefore favored by God and they are not, we have totally missed the point. Blessings we have from God are meant to be shared, that all people may be so blessed as God's people, that's what it means to be holy.

A people who know by whom they are blessed, and who therefore share that blessing. So when we sing "God Bless America" at our athletic events and public rallies, let us also sing "God Bless Haiti", because God is especially fond of the Haitians. Let us sing during these Winter Olympics, God bless Canada and China and Korea for providing all those wonderful athletes. Let us sing with our troops overseas, God bless Iraq and Afghanistan because they so sorely need it. Let us sing peace into the Middle East -- God bless the Israelis and the Palestinians, may they live in peace together. May we, a holy people, call for God's blessing on all.

And then may we live, and do, and be, as if it were so.


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