2 Corinthians 9, Mark 12:41-44
As we pause to give thanks for God’s blessings on this Harvest Sunday, we remember all for whom the harvest this year is leaner than before. Heather, a social worker, and her husband, a veteran, lost their jobs and home, their small business folded, multiple relatives died and health crises pushed them into medical debt. “It just went from a drip to a flood very quickly. And we just lost it all," Thomas recalled.
Clara, and her husband lost their jobs at the start of the pandemic — she couldn't clean homes anymore due to her clients' COVID fears, and work stopped at her husband's construction sites. They barely get by with food stamps and food pantries. 8-year-old Zoey from Louisiana, reported that her family often eat rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and she sees her parents go without food in order to feed their children.
Heather, Clara and Zoey are just three of the 33 million faces of the hungry and food insecure in our country today. On this day we celebrate Harvest and Thanksgiving, on a day we give thanks for blessings, even blessings in lean times, we recall those among us who scramble to eat. Some of us know what it is like to receive handouts. Some of us are economizing, cutting back, uncertain what is coming around the corner. Last week we talked about how we are living in lean times, difficult times, times when we need 1.17 cents to buy something that cost a dollar a year ago.
In these lean times, cutting back for some might also include cutting back in what we give to church to charity. It’s human and natural. We cut back everywhere even to those in need. As people of faith however, the scriptures teach us differently. Radical generosity is at the heart of the Christian’s life. We are called to give out of trust. We are called to give God from our first overs, not our leftovers. The prophet Habakkuk (3:17-19) declares the stance we are called to take in our lean times: “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior.”
This attitude of gratitude, this declaration of acting in trust, in grounded in the biblical concept of the first fruits. The concept of first fruits derives from an understanding that since God created all that is, everything belongs to God (Psalms 24:1). One of the first lessons God taught the people of Israel, is found in the book of Exodus 23:16 -- while they were still roaming in the wilderness -- is that the hallmark of a faithful people is in how they give back the best offering from our first offerings; including not only from the crops of the field, but from the sheep and cattle, even the first-born son was dedicated to God. In all circumstances, we are called to return to the Lord our first and our best.
This is an act of radical trust and obedience. We can well imagine that the people are taught to give their best when they were probably experiencing lean times. Typically, agrarian people lived off the the harvest from the prior year, which was nearly exhausted by the time of the new harvest. Giving the first fruits is an act of trust because the farmer doesn’t know how the rest of the harvest will turn out. Will there be enough cattle and sheep? Will there be more children?
In addition to the first fruits, Jewish law went further and mandated that the corners of fields, wild areas, left-overs after harvesting and unowned crops could not be used as the First Fruits offering. They were intended to be left as charity for the poor. Remember the story of Ruth? When she and Naomi returned to Bethlehem Ruth had to glean from the fields in order to eat. These teachings remind us that the first thing we do with what we have is set aside the best for God and a portion for the care of the poor. In this way we cultivate gratitude and a radical generosity, the foundation of faith in God in Christ.
The first example of offering the first fruits is actually in Genesis 4, the story of the offerings of the brothers Cain and Abel. Abel was a shepherd, and his offering to the Lord was “the best portions of the firstborn lambs from his flock” (Genesis 4:4, NLT). Cain was a farmer, and his offering was “some of his crops” (Genesis 4:4, NLT). Abel’s offering, we are told, was more acceptable to God. Abel offered to God the best portion of the first lambs, again not knowing if more would come. Cain’s offering was from some of his crops, his leftovers, not the first fruits, not the best. We know how things turned out for Cain. His lack of generosity transforms in jealousy, resentment and rage, as he ultimately kills his brother Abel. The more we hoard what God has given us to share, the more we risk selfishness, the easier it becomes to turn our backs to others.
According to the Bible Jesus is God’s first fruit (1 Corinth. 15:20) Jesus is the best that God has to offer us. Jesus is our life, our salvation, our Lord and our Savior. Through Jesus God shows us how we are to live. Jesus reveals a radically generous, giving God whose life we emulate most clearly when we in turn give, as Paul instructs us in 2 Corinthians 9:7 “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not regretfully or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” The act of giving to God and to our neighbor in need should be a joyous act. Giving should make us happy, satisfied, fulfilled as people of God. We give, in good times and bad, because we have a God who does not leave or forsake us. Thus, we are assured by Jesus’ very brother, James (1:17-27) who declares that “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, …In fulfillment of his own purpose… so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” Thus, in our acts of faithful giving, we too become God’s first fruits to all creation. We embody the best of God’s love for the world, in our testimony of radical giving, radical trust, a radical faith in a “God whose Giving knows no ending.”
So, the question that Harvest Sunday, that Thanksgiving poses to us is this: are we witnesses of radical generosity? Do we give of our “first overs,” our first fruits, trusting in the care o God? Or do we give of our leftovers? How do we look in Jesus’s eyes, who saw the Pharisees giving enormous amounts, but declared the widow’s mite was greater, because she sacrificed more? Do we take the best for ourselves and leave the crumbs to God and others? Imagine what a world we would have if we all practiced giving our first fruits, the best portion? We would experience a world like the prophet Isaiah describes: (58:11): ‘If you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry, and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. ‘We would not have anymore Heathers, Claras, or Zoeys, or any of God’s children dying of hunger or in dire need.
We are called to generosity of our time, talent and treasure in lean times. We are created to be a first fruit people. Such a witness is the hallmark of a mature, grounded God-centered, Spirit-filled life. Like the widow’s mite, may we give in trust, not content to just share of our leftovers, but of our first fruits. Let us act in faith, be thankful in all things, for that is God ‘s will for us in Christ Jesus our Lord. For Jesus commands us: “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. (Luke 6:38).” Let us give like Jesus, the first fruit of all creation.
May we practice generosity in lean times and may there be a blessed thanksgiving to all!