April 7, 2019
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 labour 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.
When you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year (which is the year of the tithe), giving it to the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows, so that they may eat their fill within your towns, then you shall say before the Lord your God: ‘I have removed the sacred portion from the house, and I have given it to the Levites, the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows, in accordance with your entire commandment that you commanded me; I have neither transgressed nor forgotten any of your commandments: I have not eaten of it while in mourning; I have not removed any of it while I was unclean; and I have not offered any of it to the dead. I have obeyed the Lord my God, doing just as you commanded me. Look down from your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless your people Israel and the ground that you have given us, as you swore to our ancestors—a land flowing with milk and honey.’
Spring is a very hungry, lean time. As the first flowers start to push through the soil, as blooms start to break out of the seemingly dead trees, as the birds start to show back up, excited, there is so much activity in the spring. But as many of you who try to eat seasonally know, spring is a lean time.
Aside from asparagus, rhubarb, winter wheat, some types of tubers, spring can be a hungry delicate time. In many cultures throughout history, this time of year was when communities took stock after the hard winter to see how folks are doing as they emerge from their homes. In Scotland, this was the time of year for cutting Peat Moss, so that it could dry, as much as anything can dry out in Scotland, to be ready to burn for the next fall and winter. The entire community would tend to the peat fields, and communally cut the peat. It looks like cutting massive slices of chocolate cake. Children would stack it to dry, and the adults would socialize, while waiting their turn to cut. It was a time to see how folks were doing, because cutting peat isn’t particularly hard, but it takes balance, some strength, and agility. These communal peat cuttings were a kind of physical check-up that alerted the community of who was going to need some more support this year on their farm, known as a croft, before the plantings begun. There was a potluck, with folks bringing the remnants of their root sellers, some whisky of course, fresh scones with dried berries, and the last remnants of cured meat. As the men cut and stacked, the women sized up what was brought to the table, not with jealousy or a desire for a bake-off, but as a kind of window into folks root cellars, how they were doing during these hungry times when there was so much work to do. Peat cutting gatherings also had a strong dose of communal environmental stewardship. The communal peat field had to be cared for, it’s growth and health, digging drainage ditches, or re-routing water, along with lovingly cutting off the first layer of fresh growth, cutting the old growth below, and placing the green layer back on top after the cutting so the process could continue. This gathering was also a time to swap seeds, to talk about this next year’s crops, and a time to discuss the management of communal forests, connect with boat captains about the fishing stock, an opportunity to discuss grazing with shepherds, a sort of “State of the Environment and Economy.” Because of the interconnectedness of the local ecosystem, these gatherings were an important touchstone, a moment to make plans and take stock for the health of the whole.
The Temple in Jerusalem didn’t organize a peat cutting, but they did have their own version, the offerings of first fruits. What we might not realize at first hearing of this text is that this food isn’t burnt. It’s offered to the Priests, who manage much of the life of the people of God. From their stores, stocked at this festival, support could be given to those starting new farms, or those going through a crisis. Those who are mourning could be fed while they adjusted to life without a Beloved. In fact, beyond the “general operating stores” of the priests, there are specific offerings to the Orphans and Widows, so that those experiencing abundance are aware of those experiencing grief in their midst. And the prayer, do you notice who it mentions? Who is to participate in the feast? The stranger, the refugee, the immigrant in the land. They are all to participate, and eat together, a communal check in, a time to plan, to make sure folks have access to food. It’s not just charity, it’s also justice. Because as the first fruits come in, many would take stock of their labor force, and could offer employment to those who needed access to the fruit of the land.
Our community these days is in need of this kind of first-fruit check-ins, where resources are shared, and communities are able to check in, develop relationships, and establish economic and environmental justice. While our calendar is no longer tied to the agrarian cycle, we do have a unique opportunity for these kinds of festivals.
Recently I drove down to our newest neighbors, the twenty eight new homes being developed on Cowpens road. On the sight of the former horse farm, a new development is going up, with energy efficient, storm water managed, beautiful homes that are preserving large amounts of trees, and planting even more natives, with parks and wetlands. I swung by the other day to learn more, and shared that I was from the church up the way, and the young man showing me around lit up. “Do you have a card? A lot of the folks moving in are from out of state and are looking for churches and to get to know more about what’s going on in Towson.” I shared this with our friends down the road at Divinity Lutheran, and Towson Pres, and before you know it, we realized that we had an opportunity not only to welcome the stranger, but to build relationships for the benefit of our local economy and ecosystem. We are hoping to create a Homecoming festival on Saturday, March 14th, here at Maryland, hosted by our local churches, with local businesses, environmental groups, nonprofits and schools. Just like a first fruits festival, this will be a chance to welcome new neighbors, and connect with old ones, to bring folks together and connect them with Scouting Troops, the YMCA a chance to connect and practice Holy Listening, and learn how we can live together for the health of the community. We can extend opportunities for these homes to install rain barrels and rain gardens, share about the importance of native plants, invite them to walk our woods and observe our bees. A good friend of mine, John Francis, has even agreed to hold a concert here, and who knows, maybe even the Deep Rooted Folks will sing. And because we are partnering with as many congregations and organizations as possible, we don’t have to do all the work; like the priests of the temple, we just host the event, and let the community gather, while we check in and listen to what is on folks minds, so that this house of worship can be a catalyst for the work of doing life together, of unleashing justice, and caring for the vulnerable among us. If you’d like to help plan this Homecoming Festival, I’ve got a sign-up sheet out on the Welcome Board, and also on the big wooden information table.
Our North American culture has shifted dramatically, with a breakdown of much of the social fabric that brings people together, but there are moments when we can create something new, opportunities to get to know people in our midst that we don’t always get a chance to sit down over coffee and hear about their lives. But when we risk doing so, when we gather and check-in, who knows what we will learn or see.
So let us prepare to gather the community, and be ready to see what God is planting in our midst. And May we bring the first fruits of our revitalization, so that our neighbors can see what God is growing among us.