Harvest Fest, October 15, 2017
Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Psalm 65, 2 Corinthians 9:6-15, Matthew 22:1-14
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Our first reading comes from Deuteronomy, and it takes place just before the Hebrew people crossed the Jordan River to settle into the land that God had promised their ancestors, Abraham and Sarah. Let’s review, a little bit. God had called Abraham and Sarah out of their home country, promising them that he would give to their descendants a good land for their very own. Abraham and Sarah lived in that land, but as foreigners, resident aliens. Their great-grandchildren went as refugees to Egypt, fleeing a bitter famine, and after a time the Egyptians enslaved them. Generations later, God freed them from slavery in Egypt and led them through the wilderness back to the land that he had promised their ancestors.
And now, in the reading from Deuteronomy, there they are, standing just outside it. And God is giving them a whole bunch of instructions for what kind of life they’re supposed to live once they have this land. How should they act? What should they do? When they are no longer slaves, but free people, safe in their own land? And one of the things they must do every year is gather the first fruits of the harvest. The first, and the best, and take it to the Temple and give it to God. This passage doesn’t give the amount, but in other places it’s specified that it is supposed to be a tithe: ten percent of the harvest. You take that tithe to the priest, and you remember your heritage. You remember how God called your ancestors and promised them a good land, how God promised he would always be with your people. You remember how God was with your people in good times and bad, even when they were enslaved in Egypt. God was always with them, guiding them, protecting them, and working for their good. And God freed them from slavery and brought them to this new land. Everything that they have and everything that they are is a gift from God. The fact that they are free is a gift from God. The land is a gift from God. The rain and the sun is a gift from God. The physical ability to work is a gift from God. The growth of their crops is a gift from God. And they are to remember that by taking the first and the best of it to the Temple.
What does the Temple do with it, you may ask? 10% of every farmer’s crops. That’s a lot. First and most obvious, they use it to pay their priests and scribes and take care of the temple itself. But they also used a chunk of it to throw a big party, for everyone in the community. Not just the nice, religious, prosperous people. Everyone, rich and poor alike. The scum of the community as well as the pillars of the community. The people who’ve been there all their lives as well as the strangers nobody knows and everyone thinks are weird. Everyone in the region. All are welcome and invited. No exceptions. They would come, give thanks to God for the harvest, and then have a feast. Good food, good friends, good time for all. And the rest of the tithe—the bulk of it, actually—was used charitably. The temple used it to feed the hungry, buy clothes for the naked, take care of the sick and the orphan, and in general to help anyone who needed help.
These are actually some of the most common themes in the Old Testament. We owe everything to God, blessings are meant to be shared, God’s presence is like a feast or a party, and when we see someone in need we are supposed to be generous and make sure that their needs are taken care of. That last bit is crucial. When someone is in need, it is our responsibility to make sure that need is taken care of. If we are truly followers of God, if we are truly taking God’s commands seriously, there should never be anyone hungry among us, because we should take care of them as individuals and as a community.
With that in mind, what are we here to do today? Well, we’re here to give thanks to God for the harvest. It’s a Harvest Fest! And we’re here to have a good time, to enjoy the music and eat a lot of good food. And we’re here to raise money for the poor. The world is incredibly different now than it was thousands of years ago when Moses and the Hebrew people stood outside the Promised Land and heard these words for the first time, but these core values remain: we praise God for the blessings God gives us, especially the harvest. We rejoice in God’s presence and in the community, and have fun together. And we raise money for those in need.
I have a challenge for you, though. Consider the tithe. That’s still, to this day, supposed to be the minimum that faithful people give. Ten percent of everything that we earn, both to remind us that everything we earn or have is a gift from God, but also to fund ministry needs and help take care of those less fortunate than us. Go home this afternoon and count up how much money you give to charity and to your church in a typical month. Then compare it with your monthly take-home pay. I bet that most of you will find that it is nowhere near ten percent. For those of you who aren’t good at math, ten percent of 1,000 is 100. So if you take home $1,000 a month from your work, ideally you would be giving $100 a month to your church and to the charities you support. If you take home $2,000 a month, ideally it would be $200. Now, we don’t live in an ideal world, and that’s not always possible. But if you’re not giving a full tithe, consider increasing your giving just a little bit. One percent, maybe, or even half a percent. There are so many good causes that need help right now. The McLean Family Resource Center, for one, or Camp of the Cross, which we are supporting with today’s offering. But there’s also your home church, or the Harbor Angels in Coleharbor which raise money for local people with high medical bills. There’s the Community Cupboard of Underwood and other local food pantries that feed hungry people here in North Dakota, and the Great Plains Food Bank that is the backbone of hunger relief in North Dakota. There are relief efforts for Puerto Rico, Florida, Texas, the US Virgin Islands, and other places hit by the horrifying hurricanes of the last few months. There are relief efforts for the earthquakes in Mexico and the fires in California. I have to put in a plug for Lutheran World Relief and Lutheran Disaster Response, which are both excellent charities. We tend to be the first to arrive at a disaster, and we’re some of the last to leave.
We have been given so many blessings by God. It’s true that this wasn’t a perfect year. Bad thing happened this year, both locally and nationally and internationally. People got sick, people died, there were natural disasters, and the weather round here wasn’t very good for farmers. But still, in the midst of all that, babies were born. People healed from injuries and illnesses both physical and mental. People came together to help and support one another. People loved one another. People chose to help when it would have been easier to do nothing. And in each of those blessings, God has been present.
It’s not always easy to see that. We ask God why he doesn’t send rain when we want it, but we don’t thank God when the rain comes. We ask God where he was when hurricanes and earthquakes hit, but we don’t see his presence in all the people who help rescue others and work to rebuild afterwards. We ask God where he was when a hate-filled man spews bullets at a crowd, but we don’t see God’s presence in all the people who tried to influence that man onto a different path throughout his life. And where was God, as that man was shooting? God was with people like Jonathan Smith, who saved thirty people before he himself was shot, and God was with all the people who performed first aid or covered other people with their own bodies. We ask God where he is when people get sick, and don’t thank God enough when people heal. We live in a world that focuses on horror and fear instead of on hope and love. We live in a world that focuses on the negative and ignores the positive. We live in a world that cannot see blessings when they come in the midst of pain.
But every breath we take is a gift from God, who made us. Every smile we share with a friend is a gift from God, who gave us the capacity to love and be loved in return. Every crop we grow, every job we get, is a gift from God, who made heaven and earth and all that is in it, seen and unseen. We have a lot of blessings that we take for granted, and we should celebrate both them and the God who gave them to us. But more than that, we need to remember that when God gives blessings, he doesn’t give them so we can hoard them for ourselves. God gives blessings to be shared, with all the world. As we thank God this day and always, may we share generously the blessings God gives.