Thanks and Giving
I’d like to speak today about giving thanks, and giving first fruits. But first I have to admit to an uneasiness about the passage from Deuteronomy which speaks of both of these things. It’s set in the context of the Israelites settling in the land they entered after escaping from slavery in Egypt, and they’re being instructed about how and when to give thanks to God:they’re to take some of the produce of their first harvest, and bring it to the priests to offer to God in thanks for this land “flowing with milk and honey.” Then they’re to enjoy the fruits of the harvest in a big celebration.
But here’s what makes me uneasy: to settle in the land that they believed God had promised them, they first launched a bloody series of invasions of the peoples already living there, and slaughtered entire settlements – men, women and children. That was their narrative: God had promised them the land, and by God’s might they defeated and slaughtered nations much bigger and mightier than themselves in order to take the land.
It sounds all too much like the depressing history of human war, conquest and settlement that has taken place in every age, across the world, often supposedly sanctioned by God. And of course it links us to part of the history of Canada when the land was seen by settlers as empty and up for grabs, and the indigenous peoples were simply pushed aside or worse.
What I’m saying is this: we have to be careful about giving thanks for things which have been gained at others’ expense. We have to be careful about naming things as blessings which in fact we have no right to.
Yes, the children of Israel suffered oppression when they were enslaved in Egypt. And yes, they were liberated by God through the leadership of Moses. And many Canadians came here seeking refuge from oppression or poverty or injustice, and found it to be a place of freedom. But we have no right to celebrate the good things we enjoy if they come at the price of another’s suffering.
Our desire to give thanks has to be linked to a desire to seek justice and give back:
- to make reparation for harm done
- to seek reconciliation with peoples ill treated
- to balance the inequity between those who have nothing and those who have more than enough.
So thanksgiving is a serious business. It’s got to be more than just saying Thank You for everything we’ve got when around us is need and layers of injustice. Our gratitude is hollow if it doesn’t go hand in hand with a determination to give back, repair, restore.
Most of us are not farmers directly involved in growing crops. We’re not bringing the first harvests of our fields or gardens as our first fruits. Most of us are not even working in manufacturing industries that supply our physical needs. So what can our first fruits be, if we want to offer them to God in a meaningful way?
Perhaps we need to be looking at what we put first in our lives. What in fact are we pursuing and producing? And does it make a good offering to God?
A lot of the time, if I’m honest, I’m seeking my own security and that of my immediate loved ones. Humans are deeply tribal: we’re wired to take care of our own first. Caring for others, especially those who we perceive to be different from ourselves, doesn’t seem to come naturally. Maybe that’s why we need religious commandments: Do not kill. Do not steal. Love your neighbour AND love your enemy. (Even if we break them all the time.)
We have to school ourselves in goodness. We have to practise together to move beyond our own circle of care and out into the world of need. That’s why faith communities are so powerful – because together we can do more, and encourage and challenge each other, and grow beyond our own four walls.
One of the core practices at the heart of our faith is selfless giving – generous, abundant, hopeful, life-changing giving. Giving of ourselves, giving of our resources, giving of our money and time and energy. Giving to make this world a better place for all, not just for some – because it’s the right thing to do.
Jesus says in today’s gospel passage, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry; whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” [John 6:35] If our priorities, what we hunger and thirst for, what we chase after, are rooted in Jesus and his teachings, we’ll be satisfied. And we’ll be bringing the first fruits of generosity, compassion, justice.
One very practical way we can do this (and this relates to our life as a church, as we head towards our fall Joyful Giving program) is to set up automatic payments from our bank accounts and direct them to the organizations or causes that help others. Then the money comes right off the top, as a priority, a first fruit, before we even have to think about it. It’s called First Fruits Giving. You may give this first fruit to a church, or to another charity, or to the need you support elsewhere. It’s a great habit to get into.
Thanks is a great beginning, but it can’t stop there – we have to give as well, and make sure that our priorities, our first fruits, are the things that bring all of us closer to God’s realm of peace and justice for all. As we count our blessings, we must also count the ways we can give back, repair, restore.
At the end of the passage from Deuteronomy there’s a line that points us in the direction of this call to give as well as to thank: the Israelites are told that when they’ve offered their first fruits they’re to go home and enjoy God’s bounty, and share it with the strangers in the land, the outsiders, the foreigners. That is God’s way, the way Jesus taught and led. May we follow.