The First Fruits
Preacher: The Very Revd Adrian Newman, Dean (2005-2011)
25 February 2007, 10:30 (Lent 1)
When I was younger I used to shudder when Lent came around. It always seemed such an ascetic, life-denying and essentially negative approach to Christian living, and I didn’t like it. But over the years I’ve come to appreciate it, to see beneath the layers and understand it in a new light. I can now see Lent as a place set aside in the Christian year when we can establish patterns of living which will stand us in good stead for the Christian life all the year round.
I want to talk about one of those patterns this morning, the pattern of giving and self-offering you find in the OT passage from Deuteronomy. I want to preach about the counter-intuitive mystery we call giving.
It is here, in Deuteronomy, that we first encounter a principle and a pattern which all those who seek to follow God are expected to weave into their lifestyle: giving the first-fruits of what you produce or earn back to God.
You can wrap it up many ways but when you peel away the layers there are basically only two types of sermon about giving, and I call them the stick and the carrot.
Firstly the stick. Stick sermons beat you into financial submission. Many years ago a friend of mine arrived as the new vicar of a church in a wealthy part of suburbia. He was appalled to discover how low the levels of giving were in his church. And so within a fortnight of being instituted as their vicar he stood up in the pulpit and challenged them to double their giving within six months or he would leave. He ended up staying 20 years, so that particular stick worked!
Many stick sermons tend to take something like the story of Ananias and Sapphira as the text. The fate of this unfortunate couple hangs like an unspoken threat above the offertory hymn. Give or die......
But to be fair most stick sermons are much more subtle than this. They originate in most churches' experience of desperate financial need. 'If you don't give the consequence is .......... they will take our vicar away from us......they'll close us down...... the roof will collapse.......... the dry rot will spread, or whatever it is.'
I've been ordained 22 years, and I've never come across a church that has had the financial resources that it has needed. The need is always desperate. Income is always less than expenditure. So the temptation is enormous to preach a sermon that will brow beat people into submission. Give, or we die......
But of course, if we are Christians, this simply won’t do, because God seems to prefer carrots to sticks. The carrot is about motivation – it draws people rather than drives them. It changes behaviour by making people want to change.
There is a theological word for a carrot. It's called 'grace'. Grace is transformational, it changes things. Grace is the mark of God’s dealings with the world – he gave himself up for us, and that act of giving sets the standard and the example that guides us in our own giving.
As we give up part of ourselves in an act of grace, something in the world somewhere changes for the better. This is a foundational principle of how the world is, as axiomatic as any scientific equation. Grace transforms the world for good.
Grace is rather like Windows. It's an operating system for the world, without which nothing else can run. It's the way things work in our world, when they are at their best.
This is a whole new way of looking at giving. There is a tendency to think of giving as in some way losing something that is ours, as if once we’ve given something away we have less than we did before (money, time, energy, whatever). But in fact, by the principle of grace, we actually gain something every time we give.
We normally associate giving with need. Most of us will have given something extra in response to various disasters – the tsunami, New Orleans, the Pakistan earthquake. It's a natural response. We see a need and so we give. But what if there was no need? Would that make giving a redundant exercise?
When we lived in Sheffield, the little church of which I was Vicar found itself at the centre of a lost legacy story. Back in the mid 1980's a rich widow named Dorothy Brammer had died. She had done her level best to make sure that people couldn't track down her true identity, even going to the unusual lengths of cutting her head out of pictures so they couldn’t trace her.
This meant that apportioning out her legacy became a difficult task once she died. The long and detailed investigation led to the door of my church in Sheffield, when it was confirmed that this woman had been connected with the church back in the 1920's and the key headless photograph was taken outside the main door of my church.
In came the lawyers, in came the media, and in came the television cameras. For a few glorious weeks the air was full of excitement, and it looked more than possible that my small and eternally penniless church may well become the beneficiary of a sum in excess of £1million.
At the time we were in the run up to Stewardship Sunday and for the previous two weeks I had been preaching on the desperate need for people to give money. Another sermon with the stick. But then it all changed. The question of Dorothy Brammer and her lost millions raised the intriguing possibility that the church's financial future could be totally secured at a single stroke.
So what do you do if you find that you have no further need for any money? I think it's an interesting question to consider. What if there is no need to ask people to give?
The answer that the Bible gives, and I suspect the answer we intuitively know is correct, is that even if there were no need to give, giving would still lie at the heart of what it means to be a child of God.
There’s a phrase from a famous prayer in 1 Chronicles 29, which we often repeat when we bring up the offertory at the eucharist:
All things come from you and of your own do we give you
Everything is God's. Everything. When we give, we’re only giving back what we have received from him in the first place. This is the total opposite of what we are told to believe by advertising and our consumer culture, which cries to us at the top of its voice 'it's all mine'.
So when you come across the principle in today’s OT reading, that we should always give back the first portion of anything we receive or earn; a principle that became enshrined in the command to ‘tithe’ our income – that is, to give away the first 10% of everything we earn. When we come across this, it’s simply a reminder of an eternal truth beautifully captured in the words of the old chorus: freely, freely you have received; freely, freely give. God’s pattern of grace needs to be woven into every area of our lives.
Throughout the Bible, giving is seen (at least in part) as a discipline reminding us that everything is God’s, and we are merely stewards of what God has given us. By giving on a regular basis, as a rhythm and pattern in life, we remind ourselves of the fundamental relationship between God as our creator and us as his creation. We simply look after all that God has given us. It is not ours to be grasped with a clenched fist but ours to be held out to God and his world on an open palm.
And the regularity of giving grooves a rhythm in our own lives, a discipline through which we remember again and again, that all things are God's, all things come from him and are to be given back to him.
As I said earlier, like turning into a skid, this is counter-intuitive. It goes against the acquisitive, consumerist grain of the modern world. If you want to really live, you have to learn how to give things away. Our hope is not in our own resources, but in the provision of God. This is a vulnerable, insecure but strangely and wonderfully liberating place to be.
Like the American tourist who went to visit the Spanish author of many profound books, but was astonished to discover that the great writer's home was a simple shack filled with books. The only furniture was a table and a chair. 'Where is your furniture?' asked the tourist. 'Where is yours?' countered the author. 'Mine? But I am only passing through. I'm just a visitor.' 'So am I' said the writer.
It’s a mighty vision. Travelling light, passing through a world in which all things are God's, and grace is the axis on which the world turns. Throughout Lent the cathedral is giving every collection away. Lent is a good time to establish new patterns of grace and generosity. I hope you like carrots....