Thanksgiving Year C
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, you 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. You 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.” 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 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. 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; 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, and with signs and wonders; and he 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.” You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. Then 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.Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Of the many strange communities one can end up in on the internet, one of the strangest and equally entertaining communities I have found is A.I.T.A. Spelled out in an appropriate manner for Church, is “Am I the…jerk?” The whole point of this little forum is for people to send in ambiguous moral/social scenarios and let the people of the internet judge through comments and votes whether or not the poster was indeed the jerk in the situation, if no one was a jerk, or if everyone in the scenario is a jerk. What could possibly go wrong? For example, the other day a poster gave this scenario:
“My young children have been too eager to unwrap their Christmas gifts early, and I was worried that they have put too much stock into presents rather than family time. Last year I wrapped a brick for each of them and put it under the tree. When they began to beg, whine, and fuss about wanting to open their presents early, I gave them the boxes with the bricks in them to unwrap. When they unwrapped the presents and discovered the bricks inside, they were both visibly disappointed and my youngest cried. My wife says I was being a jerk, but I wanted to give them a lesson on patience and that the holidays are about more than presents. Am I the [Jerk]?”
Was this person being a jerk to their children by tricking them? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts after the service, but I can tell you how the internet judged them. The response that received the most votes was: “You are the Jerk, simply for the reason that when playing a prank, everyone should be laughing at the end.” Whether or not you agree with the judgement, the reasoning is sound. All in all it is a fun community where people post silly and serious scenarios.
However, like any community there is a dark side. A phrase that comes up repeatedly, almost regardless of the seriousness of the situation or the relationship between the participants is “Not the Jerk, you don’t owe them anything…” For the most part this idea seems to come from many situations where family members, supervisors, etc. use the relationship as leverage to get the poster to do something they wouldn’t normally do or are uncomfortable with: “oh but we are related, etc.” Anyone with a, let’s just say, “complicated” family can attest to this struggle, especially as we enter the holiday season. I’ve seen posts ranging from carpooling, to requests to share money, to even things like expecting organ donation. While it is good that the community rejects the idea of leveraging familial and social relationships as tools for manipulation, it’s troubling to see this idea of “you don’t owe them anything” appear again and again as the main argument against making any kind of concession for the sake of others.
Spend more than 20 minutes with the news and invariably you’ll hear some story about how people in the 21st Century are lonelier than ever before, lamenting on the dramatic irony that with all these new-fangled means of communication we feel more isolated than ever. You’ll either hear that story, or the story about how we are “more polarized than ever”. Though it may not seem so, these stories are invariably connected. Everyone wants to feel a sense of belonging, to be a real part of a community. At the same time, we are taught from an early age to be independent, to be free, to not be tied to things that cause us harm because of biological or cultural contracts. We want to belong to a community, but we do not want to be owned by a community. “I belong with them, but I don’t owe them anything”.
For better or worse the Bible struggles to make these fine distinctions. For the large part, in the Biblical world, this idea of ownership and belonging are regularly conflated. You owe many things to your family, your community, and most importantly, to God. Our Deuteronomy passage gives us an early example of a thank offering to God. This would be done during the late-summer Festival of Ingathering after the harvesting of the first batch of crops. A portion of this harvest, the literal “first-fruits” would be brought to the priests where they would be presented to God while the farmer would recited a sort of creed, stating that his ancestor was a wanderer with no land who God took to Egypt, made him into a Nation, rescued the nation from oppression and gave them an abundant land, to which they now give the fruits of the land to God. The fruits are given not because God needs to be fed, or to win a favor with God, but to acknowledge who really owns the land.
Truth be told, the fruits don’t matter at all, they would have been taken by the priest to feed either him family or redistributed to the poor. The real offering to God is the creed, the recognition that none of us own anything, everything belongs to God. Though we as modern Christians readily acknowledge this fact intellectually, it bristles against our other sensibilities, we would rather focus on God’s love than an ancient world mindset of ownership, sacrifice, and duty.
Yet, belonging to God is the foundation of our community. When we are baptized, we are marked with oil on our forehead, “marked as God’s own forever”. When we do this [make the sign of the cross over oneself] we are reminding ourselves of this baptismal contract. It’s a great reason to do it when we are anxious, penitent, or joyous, “I belong to God”. In our weekly Ingatherings here, we offer the fruits of our labor to God, and I’m not talking just about alms, oblations, bread and wine. We offer our Creed, our Songs, our Apologies, our Story or as summed up by the Eucharist prayer “we offer our selves, our souls, and bodies, to be a living sacrifice…”
While these offerings are well and good, that idea of being a “living sacrifice” can be troublesome to modern sensibilities. This is a translation issue that happens when we talk with our ancestors, our common usage of sacrifice is self-sacrifice, or giving something up that is detrimental to ourselves for the benefit of another. The idea “you don’t owe them anything” is meant to be a safeguard against unnecessary self-sacrifice. Yet our ancestors had a much broader concept of sacrifice. To them, sacrifice is about belonging. If we go through the etymology of the word, we find that Sacrifice, Saint, and Sacred are all related. They are a Latin translation of a Hebrew concept: Holiness. “Holy” at its core, means “belonging to God”. Sacred means “holy”, Sacrifice means, “to make holy”, and Saint is “a person who is holy”. Put another way, in our We give what belongs to God, and by virtue of our Baptism, we also give ourselves to God. We belong to God. If we translate the Greek word “Eucharist”, we find it means “to give thanks”. When we make our Eucharistic sacrifice, we are making a thanks offering. Just as prescribed all those thousands of years ago.
The truth is the only person who has the right to say “I don’t owe you anything” is God. At the same time, though we are not owed anything by God, He has given us everything. Ourselves, our souls, our bodies, our community, our world. And as if that wasn’t enough, in these last days, He has given Himself for our sake. Through the gift of His Son we are free. He gave us the freedom to be reconciled with God, as well as wisdom to help us reconcile with each other. By His kindness, gentleness, care, and love, Jesus taught us that we are not alone, that we all belong. We belong to ourselves, we belong to our community, and most importantly, we belong to God. For this community, our human family, our freedom, our responsibility, and our faith, we give thanks to you God through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.